Jenny Tells Her Tale
Published by L'Insomniaque, Paris November 2004
Pour tout contact: L'INSOMNIAQUE, 63, rue de Sainte-Maude, 93100 Montreuil
Our collective defeat
Suddenly, there it was on the pages of the daily Sheffield Stat and local TV and radio: the 20th anniversary of the miners' strike. The memories: 5th of March 1984 Cortonwood pit near Barnsley to close - what immediately became known as "The Alamo" - the point where the miners said enough is enough followed by an immediate wildcat strike throughout Yorkshire and beyond. I just burst into uncontrollable floods of tears. It seemed like yesterday but recollections crashed and collided within me as instant pains in my heart and head became excruciating. The emotion was almost too much to bear.
Let's go back to that very moment. As a miner's wife we knew a strike was coming and we kind of felt in our bones it was going to be something pretty big, some kind of Rubicon none of us had crossed before in our lives. I remember automatically thinking in a practical way – just what are we going to do; just how are we going to survive with a young family to look after. Cortonwood and immediate survival worries. How much more difficult was it going to be when for years I'd spent so much time trying to balance paying rent and bills – robbing Peter to pay Paul - and the money always petering out before next week's wages were due. Most of the wages were handed over to me but would John, my miner husband, control his drinking? No nights in the pub after the shift etc. Home brew here we go.....
I had already partially prepared for what seemed like the inevitable, managing to get a part time job that would at least bring a little money in even though I well knew it just wouldn't be enough. Though I hadn't worked since the children were born, through an aunty who cleaned in a nearby technical college at Clowne, I fortunately managed to get a five month stand-in, maternity leave job from January to June 1984. It was in the college's refectory where I organised 16,00 meals a day. Then the college closed for the summer and we really were down on our uppers.
And then 20 years later gazing at all the things around me just seemed to redouble my anguish and crying. Such great hopes and 20 years later still experiencing everywhere the desolation of what the state did to us. All around the scars of defeat: the near elimination of the mining community and here I was driving through a landscape – my landscape - where no pit winding gear was anywhere to be seen, except as a half wheel, sculpture-like marker, on the cross roads through Kiveton Park or a few buildings left, like the clockhouse or the pit head baths, because English Heritage had deemed them significant architectural monuments and far more important than discarded miners. Alas, our small community pit villages had become opened up, not to friends, but to new Barrett type estates appearing everywhere, unveiled as "executive suites" where strangers, mostly middle income personnel from all the UK, with no feel for our area's past history moved in. These new dormitory estates and towns redefined the area and were even signposted, along with other place names like Manor Park, on roads out of Sheffield city centre, under the South African name of townships, before some official thought better of it. The point is: once I knew everybody I passed on the way to the local shop, their family history, their parents, grand parents and relatives, now - almost it seemed overnight - you no longer know a lot of the people you pass in the street and it's getting to the point you feel a total alien on your own stomping ground. And then to cap it all now the whole of the Kiveton pit site is in the process of redevelopment and the amazing wildlife that flourished on the spoil heaps and which we all delighted in, has been engulfed by an umbrella group under the dubious name of Yorkshire Forward. Grimly turning my head away I cannot look at the small army of dumper trucks smoothing everything out for some Design and Build business park. Sure, Yorkshire Forward proclaim their bogus ecological sensitivity when all they are doing is sending nature backwards!
Little did I realise on that fateful day Cortonwood went out on strike, all of this was about to change in a crazily chaotic way never to return to what it once had been, as everyone involved in the strike was about to be thrown into a maelstrom they've never really gotten out of all these years later. If only it could be limited to changes in the urban landscape or to views outside the kitchen window or daily life rituals! No, it was to be much worse. As I thought of the human consequences of this brutal defeat for all of us who had the temerity to take on the state and very nearly win ,it was obvious the end result of the strike would be a far more total devastation. And what an aftermath: I personally know of many families that fell apart and disintegrated. And then all the agonies, the alcoholism, heroin, anti-depressants, the many suicides, and the increasing illness both psychological and physical – often at one and the same time – this defeat entailed. Reviving memories of post strike hardship as money dried up as jobs became scarcer, I thought of a family I knew who only a week previously in late February 2004 had finally managed to pay off the debts incurred during the year long uprising. I also knew their particular case was no exception. I thought of the countless, untold sufferings that rained down on the vast majority of miners, fine people who fighting for their community also spoke for others, reaching out to those who wanted the same, faced with the horrible world now beginning to take shape, a world of isolation, loss and pathological behaviour then making its debut on the world stage.
The end of the miners' strike also marked a huge change in the way the state dealt with those it defeated. Previously you could say the state's behaviour was marked by a certain chivalry, particularly in the period of reconstruction following the end of the Second World War. Now it was different. As John would say, now not only did they kick you until you dropped dead but continued to kick and kick and kick. The state would no longer dole out a measure of pious forgiveness, because you had to be damned to eternity, vilified even as you were lowered into the grave. What's more, all memory of what took place had to be obliterated. The strike had to be struck out of recorded history, as if it had never happened, erased even from the subconscious. It seemed a simple job description like "miner" had to be blotted out the dictionary or, if not that, become an equivalent word for "shame". Just this August, the C4, TV news presenter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who likes to flaunt his liberal credentials, had the brazen cheek to refer to our struggle as "the infamous miners' strike"!
Like many another I have had to try and live in this hostile atmosphere, yet how can I do so without real pain? At a safe distance maybe you could say it's paranoia but it's surprising how it did make its way into peoples' heads and remains there. So you began to try and continue your existence in a world where the most important part of your life was a simple figment of an over-worked (and lurid) imagination! It amounts to a murderous assault on my psyche and sanity that simply wont ease up. Here am I daily confronting wrecked lives and an often suicidal unhappiness and yet called a misery guts because I am unable to believe in a media/designer mythology of progress and nicey, nicey, lives I am now supposedly sufficiently programmed to want and proclaim. Here I am full of a dark disposition and forebodings yet also full of a yearning for a real joyous, passionate life!
Siding with the strikers wasn't really a choice for me back then in 1984. I just knew I had to get involved and fight like I'd never fought before in my life, to support men like John who had bravely gone out on strike against a brutal, couldn't–give-a-damn Tory government. I also saw it as a fight for the community and not only the immediate interests of my family and the children I was bringing up with as much care, attention and daily love as I could muster. Even at the time, I wondered if this commitment would be readily understood by my children in the years to come, that I was fighting for a better world, not simply abandoning them but trying to make sure that their future foundations and general happiness would be more certain and fulfilling. In the aftermath of defeat and general obliteration it's not easy to keep this simple objective clearly visible in front of me.
For sometime before the strike I had been involved in community issues and had even been voted in as a local Labour party councillor, which nonetheless meant constantly locking horns with a Labour party fiefdom like Rotherham council. In a way we pushed it as far as we could, bending the rules to the point of breaking them, just as long as we could force things more our way. I even became involved in local initatives like early environmental schemes by helping convert the soil heap of Waleswood pit - closed in the late 1950s - into the basis for Rother Valley Country Park where a semi wilderness of gorse and reed-filled lakes, created from the pit pumping ponds, brought in, over the following years, all sorts of wildlife. But 1984 was different, something bigger and of far greater consequence. I tried to carry on but things rapidly came to a head and I resigned my position as a Labour councillor, overcome with disgust at the antics and collaborationist policies of the Labour party as they danced to the tune of Mrs. Dracula Thatcher.
Almost everybody on strike in the mining community quickly realised this was something out of the ordinary and quite unlike the previous strikes of 1972 and 1974. It was altogether on a different scale and not a strike over wages, like when we broke PM Edward Heath's Tory government's wage restraint policy back in 1972, although it is perhaps permissible to see it as an extension of when we defiantly picked up the gauntlet in response to the question "who governs, the miners or the government?" and went out on strike during the parliamentary elections of 1974. As it was on such a dramatic scale and because of the immediate splits between the non-working and working miners (i.e. scabs) – mainly from the areas to the south of Yorkshire especially Nottinghamshire - the 1984 strike rapidly came to involve one's entire personality and active commitment. It really was a question of to be or not to be......
Above: Jenny D in sombre mode Above: John D in friendly mode
Perhaps I should begin at the beginning….
I was born into a relatively middle class household and moved to Kiveton aged 10. We weren’t rich but my parents eventually owned a small furniture shop and they wanted me to make my proper way in the world and were brought up in the family with strong puritanical beliefs like idleness is a sin. Right from being a child I had other ideas, feelings and ways of behaviour and would love staying with an aunty in York, as she had few airs and graces and didn’t insist that I had to wear those bodices, which were common for girls, like myself, at the time. As the eldest I was “mother’s helper” and taught how to properly run a home where cooking and shopping to budget were taught on a daily basis. This was the image that was presented to the world but behind the façade, for 7 years, I suffered weekly sex abuse by my grandfather that was never dealt with but kept hidden by my middle class parents. Inevitably when I was sixteen and a half I cracked up and spent a long period in the care of Sheffield social services whilst barely a teenager. In time I attended Pond St technical College to study catering. Actually I had already developed quite a knack for cooking. At the age of 14 I’d wag it from school and found work in a transport cafe by the main road at Woodhouse Mill. I got 10 shillings (50 pence in today’s money) making and serving breakfast, dinners plus washing up. I loved it as I learnt many tricks of the trade like frying onions just after the breakfast period which drivers couldn’t resist, thus enticing them to buy a full course dinner. I also learnt how to make Yorkshire puddings, scones and buns on a large scale and throw spaghetti at walls and if it stuck you knew it was cooked!
Catering college though was different and I was mixing with girls wearing all the trendy gear coming on stream in the 1960s. However, living in a local social services children’s home I was under care orders and I had to wear regulation uniform of yellow gingham dresses with peter pan collars when the others were wearing Mary Quant/Twiggy clothes, like black and white mini-skirts with white boots and so on. It really upset me. I did work experiences in the canteens of big steel works like Steel Peach and Toser and Phoenix and in the holidays was a live-in nanny for the Canon of Sheffield cathedral. This was a real eye opener finding out how the rich lived. I was good at it though, and was even offered a job in Buckingham Palace in London but the Queen (as I was to find she is famous for) only paid pauper’s wages so I turned it down.
Age 18 I finally came to say goodbye to the institution and I attended a wedding of a friend in Wales. It was a lively, drunken do and during the shingdig I happened to look under a table and among all the empty bottles and glasses was this guy, hiding under the table and helping himself to any drinks on the table above. He was friendly and had a welcoming smile and we started talking away like there was no tomorrow. The attraction was instant. It was John Dennis and he was a welder and surface worker at Kiveton pit. He wondered what I was doing tomorrow and asked if I’d like to go rating with him and his dog on the pit spoil heap. I hardly needed to be asked. That night walking me home John proposed and I accepted.
I never regretted it as the love between us was truly intense, until shattered by the personal hell that ensued after the strike’s defeat. My parents though were horrified and refused to accept, let alone attend, our wedding. They even applied to a local court, as you had to be 21 then to get married. Eventually, though, they capitulated but insisted on holding their own reception. Thus JD and I had two separate parties with 2 cakes and 2 quite different sets of guests. My parents refused to speak to John’s parents and during the ceremony the vicar chose to talk about “the family” which really was a complete waste of time. Just before the ceremony my mother relented, and a bus of 52 people arrived from York, but until that change of mind we had to pay for our wedding. However by then most things had been catered for. I’d bought a second hand dress for £5 and on the wedding morn I went to nearby Clumber Park to pick my own flowers and tied them with a simple ribbon. I could afford a few things as I was working at the mental hospital and many of the patients came to the ceremony. John’s mother baked our wedding cake and all the people in the terraces where they lived enthusiastically joined in. It was so communally organised that one house was for the presents, another for the old folks, one for young folks, one for snogging, one for dancing and music and one for all the all the home made food – even the bread was home-baked. Everybody waved us off for our honeymoon in Scarborough. I kept looking at my wedding and engagement ring, never guessing for one moment that, many years later, I was going to be forced to sell them during the strike to pay an electricity bill.
For a number of years afterwards my parents could hardly bring themselves to speak to me thinking I’d married beneath my status in life. I had, but it wasn’t all that unusual. You must remember that in the coalfield areas of Yorkshire the miners kind of held sway, stamping their presence on so many things. They were the foundation of that warm, caring, socially active and conscious egalitarianism the area is famous for as well as its remarkable intelligence, which also imprinted itself everywhere. In short, the miners were really respected, even by those who opposed them. The same was to happen with my parents who, after the initial shock horror, slowly began to sympathise until finally, during 1984/5, they went right behind the miners’ strike. Friedrich Engels in his book The Conditions of the Working class in England written in 1844, and which had such an influence on Karl Marx, mentions how a deepening historical consciousness in the minds and hearts of working men was proving attractive to ladies of good standing! In Engels’ case, as it so happens, it was the other way on, as he remained happily living with his former mill worker girlfriend to the end of his days. Even though it was well over a 100 years later Engels’ prescient comment still meant something.
John and I settled in the row of miners’ cottages on Park Terrace, just opposite Kiveton Park Colliery, We had held our wedding celebration here. 46, Park Terrace proved to be a rebirth, a new world for me, a kibbutz of a community where everybody helped each other out, participating in each others joys and woes. John’s parents lived at No. 11. In the next few years it became almost exclusively my world, which I rarely ventured out of except to go to Jessops hospital to give birth to my children. For years up to the 1984/5 strike I’d hardly moved out of Kiveton Park, even to go to Wales – the adjacent village - or other villages close by, never mind a city like Sheffield even though our postcode was a Sheffield one. OK, there was the occasional packed train trip or a week’s holiday to Scarborough and Skegness on the Lincolnshire coast, but that was about it. And I had been reasonably content carrying on like this, utterly absorbed in the life of the local community. Here I was “making homes” for myself, and others, like elderly relatives who could no longer cope for themselves. It was nice secretly doing up a poorly aunt’s house while she was away somewhere then suddenly revealing it to her and looking at the sheer joy on her face. It was a village creed if you like, something unspoken, always on the look out for others. Like others, I was always working hard – never stopping really. There were plenty of times for laughs though as you’d guffaw hilariously at the wife-swapping antics of the publican and his missus at the Saxon pub etc.
Coming from middle class parents, for a short while, a few miners’ wives suspected me of being a shitter and I felt some pressure on myself to prove otherwise. As time went by these responses evaporated and I was completely accepted. I really couldn’t be anything other as I had no money and we depended solely on John’s wages from the pit. I did go to evening classes at the local high school to learn various practical skills, and if I did learn anything, I immediately passed on my knowledge to other women in the cottages. I remember especially learning how to make corn dollies and showed anybody interested how to do the same. Although corn dollies were fertility symbols they were also the correct farming husbandry for growing healthy wheat. Remember we lived in a rich agricultural area and there was a person in the village who knew about old farming traditions and rituals, their all round significance and how corn dolly men were, until quite recently, buried in the soil in the hope of ensuring a good harvest. She was able to get a class together to ensure the tradition would not be lost. You could also make them into babies’ rattles and I still have some corn dollies and I wouldn’t part with them for the world. It was a way of keeping something alive of the old witches’ traditions.
Although we made a family it wasn’t a nuclear family as such, as all of us tended to be in and out of each other’s houses. In a way it was a form of looking out for each other without self-consciously appearing to do so. It simply was normal practise like, for instance, on summer evenings when we’d all play cricket with dustbins –mums, dads and kids. People were forever turning up and staying with us too. Our door was always open, our table had always room for one more, and our house, the one to host parties in.
Truth to tell though, our family life had hardly ever been conventional. I suppose we’d always been affected by the alternative life style coming out of the 1960s, enhanced considerably by the fact John and I performed folk music and the like in pubs and parties. Though firmly anchored in work at the pit we redefined this new experience for ourselves. I remember the long, involved walks and talks I used to take with John as we’d end up in a field on a summer’s night and lie in the grass for ages looking up at the stars and naming the constellations. Or else talking so much in bed that he’d nearly be late for his shift and I had to shoo him to work. Inevitably the kids were brought up in an open, unrepressed way, which during the strike ensured they could share their home and lives with people from all over the world.
In these terraces the close relationship with the pit was overwhelming. When on nightshift it was regular practice for our John to lock us in making sure we’d be safe. In any case it was always easy to make contact. While pregnant with Sarah each evening he left me with a torch. His apprentice worked at the time higher up in the structure of the winding gear and was thus able to see if I flashed a torch from my bedroom window so John was able to come straight home if anything was amiss. More often the close relationship became one of fun. The loud pit tannoy system would be blaring out all the time-usually management issuing instructions or requesting things. The voices to this day still ring in my ears. It was easily accessible however and miners would divert it for other ends. John would sometimes get hold of it and say: “Night night Sweetie ”. It was quite common too for the whole pit yard to break out into loud, lusty song as someone would start off with a pop tune, old blues number or even a hymn from the Methodist chapel repertoire and everybody would follow. William Blake’s powerful poem “Jerusalem”, which later became a hymn, was very popular.
Women too were accepted into the work environment at the time and it was easy enough to walk into the yard and have a chat with your fella. Sometimes this acceptance was pushed to delightful extremes. Local pits then also employed people who weren’t as bright as a button. They of course were only allowed to do surface work like simple, repetitive tasks in the tub shop where they helped fill the tubs but it gave these people a sense of their community worth as well as self-worth by being absorbed into the workforce where they were shepherded, shielded and encouraged. One such guy at Kiveton pit was called Shane. As a young lad he had become spell bound by the Alan Ladd western – as indeed had many another existentially inclined northern lad fancying himself taking on single-handedly all the corrupt powers that be. Our Shane though didn’t just passionately watch the film - he became convinced he was a cowboy! He’d go to work in his Stetson hat with spurs strapped on his boots and toy six guns hanging from his belt. During breaks for snap (food) he’d spend the time perfecting his quick draw techniques. Then one day Shane landed himself a girlfriend who, like himself, was also a bit simple. She insisted on always being by his side – stuck like glue - and went to work with him, bringing out his lunch box during meal breaks. This was initially accepted but the Health and Safety Executive was beginning to acquire teeth and finally management asked a foreman to deal with ‘the problem’. The foreman went up to the odd couple and quite nicely suggested the lass should stay home and cook for her fella there. Shane’s response was to draw his six guns and in his put-on southern American drawl demanded: “Git yer hands offa ma’ woman”. Shaking his head the perplexed foreman backed off as everybody else collapsed with laughter. Seeing authority could make no headway it was left to fellow workmates – like John – to benignly explain to Shane why he couldn’t carry on like this.
Although in these PC times it is easy to be critical of using terms like ‘simple’ and indeed these people were a constant source of benevolent amusement to their fellow workers, in many ways it was far more tolerant than what takes place today. Those with ‘problems’ are graced as never before with polite terms only to find themselves harshly excluded and ghettoised by the real workaday world. We grew up in less repressive times!
Street parties and festivities were regular events and we always loved preparing them. The times though had an increasingly radical temper to them and come Princess Diana’s wedding in the summer of 1981, we decided to hold something of an anti-monarchy type event although we didn’t describe it as such. It wasn’t as though we perceived the celebration to be ‘radical,” we just did it for the extra fun. In fact we all tended to believe what we read in the newspapers or watched on TV. Despite the combative history of the miners we were law-abiding and thought the police were there basically to help us and generally the village Bobbies were OK and most had family who worked in the local pits.
The anti Princess Di party was great. We all got together and made big mock grenadier guards with busbies, sticking the lot on top of the big back wall fronting the main road through Kiveton. I also decided we should make a number of humpty dumpties to stick on the wall for all the little kids to enjoy. In the evening benches and pews from the local Methodist chapel were pulled out across the terraces and we all had a whale of a time lit up by hundreds of candles in jam jars as we were entertained by a folk group with guitars, fiddles and penny whistles. Some miner also prepared an especially strong elderflower sherry or champagne, which tasted beautiful. My abiding, joyful memory is seeing lots of pensioners’ completely legless singing away as they sat on or ,rather, nearly fell off the chapel pews.
This, then, is a cameo of our lost community and when the miners’ strike broke out under the slogan of “fighting for our communities” this is precisely what we were fighting to retain: a way of living far better, honest and humane than the emptiness, separation, isolation and “lonely crowd” syndrome that induces a generalised paranoia and which modern society has increasingly been embracing since post war reconstruction in the late 1940s. As work and our living quarters were virtually inseparable no wonder we were to fight with such ferocity for something really well worth preserving. It wasn’t as though it was old fashioned and backwards. It wasn’t set in aspic as, on the contrary, during the strike many of us instantly were made to feel at home in the new, though similarly warm communities, like the squatters, punks or gay movements even though the reality of family or work ties here were virtually non-existent.
The miners’ subsequent defeat however was to pretty much mark the end of all vibrant community, no matter what its makeup, old or new. The distinction became rapidly academic as all that pulsated with life rapidly caved-in to the pursuit of money, status, buying homes, shopping and acquiring commodities in general. On the empty spaces where the steel works in Attercliffe in Sheffield once stood, the mighty consumer emporium of Meadowhall was built – a funereal headstone if you like to the miners. Although I’ve never been able to stomach visiting it I‘ve come to regard it as purgatory; a place where I fancied you were forever thrown in if you’d been bad in your life. A resting place for scabs.
Above: Our anti-Princess Di party
Imaginative survival tactics
Because we knew the strike was shaping up to be a long one, almost naturally we women got together to sort out means and ways of survival, organising food distribution, community kitchens etc. Seeing I’d always had to penny-pinch I quickly got involved in fund raising and finally stepped-out to literally meet the big wide world for the first time in my life. It meant continually leaving my family and again I only hoped in future they’d understand I really had no choice.
From July 1984 strike all miners collected a weekly food parcel. It was the same amount of food regardless of whether you lived by yourself, with your parents or had a family to support. Although on the surface this appeared unfair it was organised on this perhaps too strictly an egalitarian level because it seemed the only way at the time that arguments could perhaps be prevented when the over-riding need was to maintain a simple unity on as many levels as possible. The food parcel usually contained 2 tins of beans, 1 tin of tomatoes, one tin of fruit, 16 tea bags, 4 eggs, 8 oz of sugar, 6 potatoes and one onion. Periodically we’d be given some vegetables and fruit from the local market as well as gifts of tinned food from around the world especially France and Russia. I will never forget the brutal way Thatcher impounded Russian gifts at Hull docks. Like most everyone else in the village, pensioner relatives also understood the importance of sticking it out so each week they would also send food to their kin. However, we were considerably better off than the single miners who weren’t allowed any benefits whatsoever, which sometimes had tragic consequences. While looking through strike memorabilia in my attic to aid this account I came across some notes I’d made at the time wherein Mark, a single miner, who had to look after his sister and disabled mother, is mentioned. Feeling guilty whenever he ate food, he'd become anorexic. In my notes I put down the following: “Local council provide free meals and one item of clothing per child. Single men receive nothing. £1 day picket money, £2 week hardship by local union”. I also mentioned the DHSS was deliberately difficult with strikers’ claims and there was no telephone contact “resulting in many delays causing genuine hardship”. (As an aside here, I do wish in retrospect I had kept a diary and I still haven’t met anybody from the village who did. Maybe all this was because involvement with the strike was completely time-consuming. Whatever, it is a lamentable gap). (See some of my notes in addendum at end of these reminiscences).
On my future fund (and food) raising expeditions to London and throughout the country and abroad I would mention these things and I always listed the food parcel items as well as showing the last 4 meagre pay slips John had tucked in his pay packet before the wildcat strike broke out in the Yorkshire coalfield. I also endlessly mentioned the £16. 26 pence strike pay the family had to live on together with the £13 family allowance. Remember too, that one of the legislative acts Mrs Thatcher had recently enacted was to limit strikers’ benefits cutting them by £10 per week. Many people never realised we were living on so little and such concrete examples certainly helped in getting spondoolies, food and clothes handed over to us.
Inevitably we couldn’t live on these meagre rations and strike pay, so we had to find other means of augmenting our survival. Of course some of us had allotments or biggish vegetable gardens but others didn’t. We quickly learnt to forage in the countryside and to nick from the farmers fields all around us. So as not to alert farmers to our nightly forays we also quickly learnt to take the veggies from the centre of the fields. Not having a dog capable of catching rabbits we resorted to snaring but there’s a real knack to this old poacher’s technique and John certainly hadn’t acquired it because no sumptuous rabbit stew ever appeared on our table! We did however often have wood pigeon pie and stew thanks to John’s Kalashnikov pellet gun and he sure was a crack shot with that.
In fact three months into the strike we were pretty desperate for the taste of real meat and not just dribs and drabs. One night four of us – 2 men and 2 women – managed to get some petrol together to power a picket’s car and we headed for the Derbyshire Peaks visible on the horizons from our doorstep. We were out to get us selves one of the sheep that freely roam the moorland. By then any sheep would do – simply some old scrag-end of has-been mutton would have been delicious. If you thought snaring was an art this was brain science and for the life of us we just couldn’t grab one of those goddam woollies. They were real smart and we came home empty handed.
Once scabs started appearing in the village in the late summer, they inevitably became a round the clock target. One of them kept a hencoop on his allotment where he reared chickens. We finally managed to nail one as John crept into the coop and chopped the poor bugger’s head off and as the old comment goes - “like a headless chicken” - it ran round the hen house until suddenly keeling over. Wrapping it up in a small blanket it was placed in a shopping bag and the booty was proudly brought home. After plucking it in the kitchen - we didn’t want the scab to know it was us - we looked forlornly in the cooking pot: it looked no bigger than a budgie!
Then one day there was a knock on the door. It was a young lad active in the strike. He’d managed to thieve a pig from somewhere, which he’d somehow shoved into the back seat of his car where it was squealing its head off. Having no idea how to go on from here he'd started to panic. Knowing I’d been to evening classes and catering college he thought I must possess butchering skills! I hadn’t a clue. Nonetheless, and knowing there’d be blood all over the place, John had a brainwave. Our nearby chickenless scab had managed to get himself a holiday caravan at the Lincolnshire seaside resort of Skegness, so why not further insult the little scumbag by using his lawn to kill the pig? Once on the lawn and drunk out of his brain, John then cut the pig’s throat. We then invented our own makeshift carvery skills and the pig got sliced up this way and that. Absolutely everything was used, the blood for black puddings (our beloved Yorkshire dish), the brains for soup, the trotters, the hide for rendered fat and crackling; simply everything! Nothing was wasted. A few days later the scab returned from his scabby holidays. Seeing the bastard looking at his blood stained lawn and puzzling about what had gone off really made us laugh!
Like many other workers we were all pretty good in our different ways at making ends meet. John had always been ace at making home brew and as the years went by, he became really excellent at producing exquisite tastes from virtually anything. He even said he could make a fine wine out of rank, sweaty socks and reckoned we’d all enjoy it! Certainly he knew what flowers and weeds to pick from the countryside for those special flavours. One of his specialities was tea wine and during the strike the tea leaf strainer was in constant use everywhere as he became the village tester (and taster) in chief, always taking along his thermometer and gauges to test the myriad fermenting brews of wine and beer.
Well before the strike John was famous for his brewing capabilities. Although mining is really hard graft that didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of space for fun and games whilst working. In fact larking about was often what made conditions tolerable. In any case management were nervous about coming down too hard on these diversions for fear of provoking things on a class level. It was only after the defeat of the 1984/5 strike that management were able to cut out most of this playful activity thus setting the grim reality of all work and no play that is the essence of today’s nightmare conditions imposed everywhere throughout the workaday world.
Anyway, during his nightshift, John sometimes worked in the huge pit engine house packed with all the pit’s utilities with pipes and cables snaking around all over the place amid the boilers, heating systems and what have you. He suddenly realised if you could only utilise the beck that flowed into Tommy Flocktons fields at the back of the engine house this was a great place to set up an illicit distillery. Basically all you had to do was divert one of the big but idle copper boilers, then deftly re-route some copper tubing and adding some new lengths of pipe that could be directed into the outside beck and, hey ho, you had a whiskey still. Apart that is, it couldn’t be whiskey hooch but it would be a mightily powerful pure alcohol beverage! John then got as many lads in the village as possible who regularly made gallons of beer in dustbins and asked them all for a bin full of brew to pour into the huge copper boiler. Commandeering a pit wagon one night, another miner drove around all the selected houses in the village collecting the beer bins, which were then emptied into the boiler. As John knew about distilling he knew the lads would be disappointed when he had to tell them most of their precious cargo would be wasted and drained off particularly all the poisonous parts at the top and bottom of the boiler. Only the middle portion of the unholy liquid could be drunk and then it was just a matter of waiting. Working on the welding and cutting of various bits of imported machinery so they could navigate the particular twists and bends of Kiveton’s underground tunnels, John was able to keep an eye on the fermenting still. Finally each miner who had contributed to the scheme was presented with a big lemonade bottle of pure alcohol.
John in his drunken wisdom advised each and everyone about this lethal witches’ brew. In a big flagon of ale to be placed at the centre of the table and that all assembled could pour from, he suggested merely applying a thimble full of the potion to make everybody present wildly happy and legless. Most stuck to his advice as John also stressed that you could go blind and demented on this gear. One night however, a young apprentice turned up at our house and decided to quaff a glass full and in no time at all the lad didn’t know where he was. Dashing upstairs to the lavatory he went for a slash only it wasn’t the toilet bowl nor was it the toilet! Instead he’d gone into my daughter’s bedroom and pittled instead into a new pair of boots I’d just bought her. From that day on the poor lad was nicknamed “piss-in-boots” (a play on words on the puss-in-boots, English pantomime character). Even today, and himself a responsible Dad now, the same tag accompanies him wherever he goes in the area.
It wasn’t just food, beer and wine we had to vamp. Women tended to miss different things especially toiletries. I mostly missed toothpaste and washing-up liquid. In no time though we were picking up on old traditions that were nearly dead and buried. For instance we began cleaning our teeth with soot which, as our grandparents had correctly told us, made our teeth like marble. However, as we were without essential toiletries during the strike, others would muck-in to suggest all kinds of imaginative solutions. Unlike us, the pensioners for instance could still afford to purchase daily newspapers. They would save them and cut them into squares threading each piece through a loop of strong thick wire to make rudimentary toilet paper. The same process was applied to the ends of bars of soap threaded through wire in the same way. Both worked well enough. Thus a lot of centuries old things came if you like back into play. We had to re-learn how to make soups from recipes that were ancient when the industrial working class was first formed. These were made from country plants, onions, all sorts of odds and ends, oxos and were added to daily from yesterdays leftovers - if there were any. We really enjoyed them. Inevitably you begin to wonder if you really did need all those fancy things that are the essence of modern consumerism.
We pared our life down to the minimum and learnt how to do without the necessities of modern living. And as it was done with such joire-de-vivre and because everybody around us was up to the same thing it took on the mantle of an adventure. Having no choice in the matter why not then enjoy it? We could not afford soap powder so instead we’d run the bath, usually with cold water, and put all our clothes in it. We – me and John – would then climb in the bath in us bare feet and splodge up and down like we were at the seaside singing Rolling Stones’ songs –and others – at the top of our voices. We really were getting satisfaction….It is such a good memory…..
Later during the strike we were presented with a lot of cash at our door from some fund raising I’d been involved - but I’ll tell you more about that later. Suffice to say here it meant every striking family could have £50. A couple of buses were organised from strike headquarters to take us – mostly women – down to the ASDA (now Wal-Mart) supermarket at Handsworth on the outskirts of Sheffield. ASDA of course was chosen because it was the cheapest. Once inside, the first thing the women grabbed from the shelves was washing powder, them soap, toothpaste and toilet rolls.
On this occasion I also recall buying half a pound of anchor butter, which was pure luxury. This was meant to occupy pride of place in a ‘buffet’ I later prepared in our kitchen to keep miners’ families spirits up. We had a big round table in the kitchen on which we laid out the eats. Suddenly I realised that Matt, our young son, was nowhere to be found. We searched high and low but then, bending down under the tablecloth, I noticed this little figure squatting on the floor and in his hands was a half-eaten bar of butter. Right to this day anchor is still Matt’s favourite butter……
There was a period in the strike when money ceased to have value as increasingly a barter system kicked in. You could say swap three hours baby sitting in return for a sack full of vegetables made up of beetroots, cabbages, onions and carrots etc from a big allotment just so a young couple could take a walk through the fields on a summer’s night and be alone under the moon and stars. John would swap his excellent home brew and he was really brilliant at sharpening knives. Life went on no matter what and for the babies born there was a communal shawl that I’ve still got, though it’s wrapped in tissue paper to protect it. Our miners’ wives group managed to conjure up one wedding dress which constantly was adapted for all sizes of women whether thin, fat or tall.
In recounting this part of the miners’ strike its core remains completely relevant because if and when another prolonged struggle ensues, people collectively will again resort to such stratagems and enjoy them but with hopefully a happier outcome.
As a final aside I would say in and around the village people would turn up trumps in the most unusual ways. Our GP was one. During the early part of the Second World War as part of the government’s energy strategy, Earnest Bevin, the Minister for Labour and former TUC boss, knowing there was only three weeks supply of coal left, immediately conscripted 50,000 able-bodied young middle class men to go down the pits. They weren’t officially demobbed as miners until 1948 to avoid them flooding the ailing job market. They were to become the famous Bevin Boys. Confronted with the agony of death and accidents in the pits, many of these lads were changed for the better by their experiences and ever after have tended to be sympathetic to the miners. The well-known actor, Brian Rix of Whitehall farces fame was one of them. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly really) a fair number of them once having experienced the warmth and friendliness of the mining community, found it difficult to return to their professions. They themselves had changed, finding correct middle class behaviour something of an anathema.
At Kiveton Park we had our quota of Bevin Boys. One of them called Tony Collington hailed from a leafy suburb of Manchester and had trained to be a doctor before war service. After the war he simply couldn’t leave our village. He became our GP but one with more than a difference. In the meantime Tony had become brash, outspoken, upfront and very unconventional. In fact he remained so unreconstructed he probably would have been struck off the doctors’ register if it hadn’t been Kiveton where he practised. He was an excellent doctor though. He knew everybody; he knew all their relatives, their grandparents and their cats and dogs. He had more than an eye for the ladies and was always trying to get in miners’ wives knickers and any other fair damsel who’d fall for his charms when trying out his luck! Whenever Tony Collington’s name would come up John would shake his head: “Say no more, say no more” and then laugh. Once when a miner’s wife went to see him because she was feeling really under the weather, Tony’s typical diagnoses was: “There’s nowt wrong with thee. Your problem is that fella yer married to. You don’t get on with him so why not do thee sen up, get a nice perm, a sexy frock and take off to Sheffield for a reet good time. That’ll cure thee”. She did just that! I once went to his surgery with a pain in the head. He said: “Jen’ you’ve either got high blood pressure or a brain tumour – which do you prefer?”
In December 1984 I was again having bad headaches, probably due to stress, which many of us showed symptoms of, so again I went to GP Tony. His response was typical: “Jen’ there’s nowt wrong with thee. The problem is Christmas is coming up and you can’t afford anything for the bairns”. He then opened his desk drawer revealing a wad of £10 notes. He handed me one saying: “That’s for Matt and Sarah and while you are at it tell every other miner’s wife in’t village there’s £10 for them and to come and get it”. They did just that. He’d drawn out a lot more than a £1000 from his savings. That was our Bevin Boy GP and I wish there were more of them!
Back and forth: Kiveton Park to London
Despite all the worries – mainly domestic ones – I was immediately behind the strike, getting involved in picketing and the like. Sometime into the strike I was summoned one morning to the Kiveton strike centre at the Miners' Welfare Club (the boozer in fact) on Station Rd. Albert Bowness, the local union delegate was there. Kiveton had just been on national TV news invaded by 1500 police and a woman's support group from Peckham, south London had phoned the club asking for a speaker. He pleaded with me to go to London and do what I could. We particularly needed baby food, which I well knew we were running really short of. I was petrified but Albert kept insisting saying, "Jenny, there's really no one else". I still couldn't go and just stood endlessly shaking my head. Finally – a woman's thing – I blurted it out: "Albert, I ain't got no decent knickers". I felt so ashamed as the two or three knickers I had had holes in them or were stitched and patched up and what with my matronly, smock dresses, leftovers from having babies, I didn't want to let the side down in what I thought at the time was smart London. Otherwise all I had were the men's clothes I most usually wore on the picket lines. The most important thing though was the knickers! Albert had sensed what the problem was, which was why I liked him, because he was sensitive to women which sprang I think from the respectful relationship he had with his wife, Anne. Indeed he'd already been saying repeatedly; "This strike will sink without the women". Albert immediately came back: "Well, I'm just off down to Emerson's shop to get thee 4 pairs of knickers to go up to London " and he duly did so, purchased out of union emergency funds!
Later that day I was sitting on the train as it pulled out of Sheffield shitting purple cookies. I had a notebook with me I had intended to fill with jottings but it remained empty all the way to London. Albert had walked me to Kiveton Bridge station from the club saying, "get across to them we really need baby food and Jen' try to get as much money as possible". These words remained ringing in my ears but my head was spinning. Instead what was going through my brain was a train ad jingle that was all the rage on TV at the time: "Travelling Intercity like the men do. Intercity sitting pretty all the way".
Finally I arrived at Kings Cross terminal in London and nervously walked off the train conspicuously covered in strike badges so I'd be recognised and in no time I was met by some of the women from Peckham. We immediately got on a bus and my eyes began to open wide as I looked at black people and others from all over the world. (To be sure there was a black guy who worked down Kiveton pit but to us he was always just Nigel and we weren't conscious of the colour of his skin, as he was merely one of the lads). I was immediately aware too that some of the women who met me were lesbians. Then I was taken to the squat that was to become my lodgings. What no rent? Jeez! Moreover, in terms of wealth, London obviously wasn't what it was cracked up to be in my fantasy and I quickly realised even on that first bus journey I was noticing people that were worse off than ourselves. I remember thinking their knickers probably weren't as good as mine!
Encamped in a womens' commune feeling somewhat like a fish out of water or on a bicycle, in the evening sitting in a circle a strange cigarette was passed from mouth to mouth. Paralysed with fear and sensing what it was it was simply agony waiting my turn. Was I being tested, were they trying to show me up as just a straight housewife, or was this some type of consciousness raising and did I have potential for other things? Finally the ciggie was on my lips. I took a puff and started coughing all over and felt somewhat whoozy. Finally back home in Kiveton I told John. He laughed telling me that he'd been into "reefer madness" for ages but had never let on! If the first night was memorable, the morning after was even more so. I awoke early and was really hungry. I think we must have eaten everything in the house the night before, so a black lass and me who was living there made to go to the local shop to buy some bread and milk. It was only about 7 am but we'd only taken a few steps when some cops pounced shoving us both up against the wall and searched us for drugs even making us take off our shoes. I'd met the Met! So this was London! Getting back to Kiveton I told the lads on strike in the club. They were horrified as nothing like that happened in our village. And as we all know a month or so later these same lads were also to find out what vicious bastards the Met were.
Nothing had been really arranged by these lasses from Peckham. They just recognised an urgent need and asked me to stay the rest of the week in order to do their best to help us. We began by taking a walk through South London as meetings were spontaneously arranged off the streets at the drop of a hat – a simple walk-in in some small factory or a bus garage or going into the front room of poor peoples' houses usually or, maybe - as time went on - something slightly more organised like an upstairs room in a pub. Every halfpenny was shoved into a Quality Street sweet box and off we went again. By the time I got home my Quality Street box just wasn't big enough and everything that had been donated had been tied up in a pillowslip. When I got back to Kiveton Bridge station some strikers met me. Together we walked back to the club and I tipped the contents of the pillowslip out onto the table. Everybody's face was a picture. I had saved every bus and tube ticket and put them on the table just to be au fait with the accounts. In those first 5 days I had come back home with more than enough baby food. Then a few days later again the phone rang at the club: "We want that woman again"! Thus my strike globetrotting took off...
In this 'new' outside world all of us – men and women alike - had instantly to adapt. In different places far from Kiveton I'd bump into others and would naturally ask what are your lodgings like are you been well looked after, etc. I remember one very young lad from the village earnestly coming up to me in London not knowing if he should eat some strange vegetarian dish served up to him nightly at a squat he was billeted at. In agony he wondered if it was safe, saying, "I think they're feeding me birdseed, Jen". It was his first taste of couscous.
So again I went back to London and Peckham. Some of the girls I really, really did get along with. There was an especially delightful lunatic Scottish woman who stood by me all the time I was in London. Collecting money on a main high street she asked one guy for some change. He replied: "I've got none". "OK", she quipped: "Then I'll have the shirt off your back" And the guy did just that! The shirt ended up in Kiveton and Jimmy Mac wore it proudly for the rest of the strike. Unfortunately, the Scottish lass had a boyfriend on heroin and when they turned up at Kiveton, John when finding he used needles, had to ask him sadly to leave – being of course no stranger to drugs himself although he laid off the hard stuff. Hilariously, at the end of the strike when we organised a thanksgiving do for all who'd helped us, the Scottish lass kitted herself out in a flowing gown crowning herself with a large sparkling tiara.....
Slowly though my confidence grew and I suppose I quickly developed some kind of way of wowing the crowds, small or larger. Basically I had to get their attention. Awareness was the real bugbear and unfortunately you became sentient to just how dumb-fuck many middle class Londoners were. Some really didn't know jack shit and how could you get the truth through to them?
I realised, as I've intimated elsewhere here, you had to give 'em stories – real life, throbbing stories. I'd often tell them what the last 3 days had been like. Going to bed tired out then having to kick John out of bed to get on that picket line. To let them know what it was like daily facing coppers leering at you. What it was like getting the kids ready for school in this unusual situation and finally what it was like being a woman in virtually a situation of civil war. I'd talk about our precious humane community in our rows of miners' cottages and just how long the Dennis' family had been there. How John's grandfather was there when the pit was sunk in 1866 and how for 52 years, George, (John's Dad) had been at the pit and on his retirement to be rewarded with only a miniature version of the famous miners' safety lamp which he promptly flung into a nearby field. Was that really all he was worth? (In fact, I secretly rescued the lamp and it remains to this day all polished on my hearth). I think I refrained from telling the audience some of the more gory details – perhaps for fear of prosecution – like how some coppers would not only wave their £20 notes at you and which some of the media had picked up on – but how some would offer you £10 for a blowjob!
In no time I realised I'd come into full contact with the most radical part of the London feminist movement and some of them were really great, working tirelessly for the strike. They tended to live in squats and really weren't part of the artsy-farty owner occupiers/writers scene who had such a high profile in what I rapidly realised was the media oriented feminist circuit. In terms of the practicalities of everyday life they seemed much at odds with each other. Some too were women separatists and I remember one of the squats had a plumbing problem and until they eventually found a woman plumber, nothing moved in that dept. When telling the lads back in Kiveton their jaws dropped open!
Other feminists weren't so appealing and I rapidly came up against the middle class groups, brimming with etiquette and snooty manners. They would, for instance, lay on some fancy snap when I'd been used to cabbage and onions. This having been my staple diet for months I simply couldn't digest quail eggs, smoked salmon and other delicacies and at one point I became proper poorly. This went along with many condescending mannerisms, which I found irritating. One in particular really got me mad: "This is Jenny, my little miner's wife"!
One meeting I attended in the south west of England really stood out. I was invited to a posh venue full of snotty-nosed, upper middle class people many with cut-glass accents. I turned out my usual speech – impassioned though it was – enumerating the difficulties and money problems we were experiencing, recounting many a true personal story for good measure. I then asked the audience to make generous donations if they really felt about the plight of the miners. Then the collection kicked-off. Looking on, all I was seeing were a few coins dropped into our buckets covered with stickers supporting the strike! From feeling over-awed among these posh people I exploded in full-throttle Yorkshire accent virtually calling them a bunch of mean bastards. "Coins, coins, coins, coins. How about some £5 or £10 notes? Do you know duck (pointing to a well-attired woman in the front row) what it's like not been able to give enough snap to your bairns"? I really put the boot in pointing out how they were sitting on their arses passively identifying with the strike from a safe, cocooned distance. For sure it did the trick and the audience started coughing up the notes. Then a guy with a very smart accent stood up and said: "The gal is right you know, why don't we do something ourselves right now". Apart from he was saying "fuck" every other word. We, in the mining community, never swore like that when women were present, although again that was to change somewhat as the years have rolled by. Still you took all this on board without comment – you had to – if you wanted to get hold of the spondoolies. Anyway this posh guy said there was a lorry depot just round the corner packed with lorries that were daily deployed ferrying coal (from south Wales?) as part of the strike breaking strategy of the state. He suggested doing something, seeing he could supply "fucking hilti-guns". Surprisingly, a fair amount of people got up off their seats and a bunch of us went round the corner to this depot and using the "fucking hilti-guns" wrecked the tyres and wheels of the parked lorries. Seeing the depot was in a remote country district there was also no security! At the end of the night I felt right chuffed knowing the scabs would take time to recover from this deserved pasting.
The Yorkshire miners – and I couldn't help but feel Kiveton Park in particular - unlike say, the South Wales or Kent miners, weren't very good at organising survival strategies and we often went without when with a little more effort we could have eased things considerably. I remember speaking from a stage to a big audience at Hammersmith Palais, West London after the battle of Orgreave in late June 1984. It was the biggest meeting I'd been to and I felt terrified. Stage fright didn't come into it. Things were beginning to get desperate survival-wise in Kiveton. I thought of the family with only one pair of shoes between the Dad and his apprentice son who was also on strike. That meant only one of them could go on the picket line at a time. When leaving Kiveton Bridge station for the Hammersmith trip, the son – he was called Poppy – said goodbye to me, having that morning struggled finally to the picket in his bare feet! He shouted: "Hey Jen', try get us shoes, not poncey ones but some trainers". Cheeky but nice. By now some of the strikers believed I was so capable I could just do it like that and their shining, believing faces said so. As I've mentioned previously, in between my endless stints hither and thither I was constantly on the picket line so I had all this knowledge at first hand. On stage at Hammersmith I mentioned this and then the heckling began as some people started mocking me calling me "a drama queen" after I'd suggested that people should leave their shoes at the meeting and go back home in their socks and bare feet to see what it was like. I may be very emotional and dramatic and obviously so but this was too much. It's also something of a trait among feisty Yorkshire lasses so I snapped back: "You say you support miners, well then, leave your fucking shoes". Some did! Finally I did go back home with a sackful of shoes, even a pair of American Jordans, and between Kiveton Bridge station and the club my sack was torn apart by young miners who like Cinderella retorted: "I don't care if these shoes hurt cos' they're just great". This incident really sums up the strike, at once a throw back to the poverty of old just like we read about in the history books mingled with the style/image consciousness of the modern day both jarring and blending together at the same time.
If you like this incident illustrated some of the tensions and probably modern contradictions in this type of situation. Around this time some of our French friends showed John a photograph of some dapper young Spanish men done up in straw boaters, striped jackets and sporting elegant walking canes, promenading for all they were worth in Brussels. A few years later two of them, Ascaso and Durrutti, now with rifles in hand, where to the forefront of a profound social revolution! Let's face it even in mining areas in 1984, consumer capitalism had made far greater inroads than it had in Spain in 1936.
One further point, after each meeting and this also applied to Hammersmith Palais , I'd say: "If you don't believe me you can come to stay at our house". And some did... And some are still real friends.....
Although we as a family always tended to be welcoming, throughout the strike our home became a veritable open house with few nights without visitors. At our final 'Thanksgiving' party when the strike had ended, there were well over 40! In the bathroom, 2 slept in the bath head to tail with 3 on the floor. Thank goodness we had a tiny lavatory that was separate. My Sarah's bedroom was turned into a girl's dormitory with 18 women sleeping on mattresses on the floor. The kitchen was left open all night where a card school was in full swing. That's also where the home brew was stashed and for two nights JD never slept. Can you imagine me cooking breakfast for 47 people with some wanting poached eggs, some fried, some scrambled - never mind all the porridge! It was real good fun.
Of course many of these people helped us out financially and became our firm friends. Equally though there was more than a fair share there for the ride, imbibing the atmosphere while poncing for free food we had paid for but could ill afford ourselves. 'Big' names joined the throng and you wondered just what was their angle? Jeremy Paxman, the future "controversial" and "combative" host of the TV Newsnight programme was all nice and pleasant with us, even downing a bit of food. He departed late in the evening. Then about 3 in the morning John and I were woken up with a loud knock on the door. It was Paxman. Evidently he'd gotten half way down the M1 motorway to London and realised he'd left his expensive scarf. He came back all that way just to collect it! We were left simply shaking our heads at the meanness of it. Surely he could have left it, or phoned us up to say keep it as a donation. Him with his house now worth at least £3 million in London's Kensington! Then there was Benjamin Zephaniah, the Afro-Caribbean poet who in 2003 handed back his MBE medal in protest over the Iraqi war. He didn't ponce but you wondered what he was doing among us. It was as though it was the in thing to be seen among the miners – essential for his radical image. It wasn't as if he cared to talk to you face to face. He'd brought his retinue with him and he was more interested in how it played with them. You could perhaps understand if he wanted to declare his solidarity with the Afro-Caribbean miners who had joined the work force – one who had been tragically killed - in a pit disaster at Lofthouse colliery near Wakefield a few years previously.
At that time in the early 1980s, the gay movement was in a considerably more open and better shape than it is in today. But there again what isn't? Capitalism had yet to invade and derail us on so many fronts to the point where people no longer have any sense of themselves. London Pride supported the South Wales miners, though that didn't mean they didn't look elsewhere. The squat scene overlapped with so much of the contemporary musical charts that along with the gay ingredient, it was hardly surprising I quickly met up with post punk bands, especially Bronski Beat and Jimmy Somerville. I hadn't a clue who they were but Jimmy was always nice to me, respectfully calling me Mrs Dennis even though they were number one in the bleedin' hit parade. The band said they'd be delighted to give a gig in aid of Kiveton and then come up and see us at the club. Back in Kiveton I told the club/union secretary about this and he replied: "Never heard of 'em. They're obvious wankers wanting to get in on the ticket"! I went on to say that Bronski Beat had said they'd pay for everything so we'd have no expenses we could ill afford. He was finally only convinced when a number of miners' young teenagers, including our Sarah, scornfully mocked his blinkered un-hip take on the contemporary scene. And on this level, kids know best!
One famous weekend a group of gays who had attended one of my London meetings turned up and their band got out, giving us all the money they'd earned from their gig. They were all done up in lipstick with fishnet stockings and high heels. They were full of themselves and full of fun too and just bounced into the miners' club. It was the evening and in no time things just started flowing as big butch miners were all dancing with the lady boys, loving every minute of it. It was ace and I just loved it too. For hours upon hours it went on and on through the night. In the club among the miners it all started with: "I'm fucking well not dancing with a lady boy" but then a few hours later it was: "I want to dance with your lady boy" and really mean it!.
Journeying to the ends of the earth - or so it seemed!
While in Peckham I met some Punks from Holland, all done up with their spiky hair dos with safety pins through their noses and so on. They wanted to get involved on the picket lines so I told them to go up to Kiveton, giving them our address and off they went. John didn't know they were coming, nevertheless he opened our door to them and said: "The house is yours" and he took them on the picket lines everyday for a week while I remained in London. The strike produced new roles all the time depending on what you were good at or on what previously hidden capacities it brought out in you. We were noted for our open friendliness. John especially was very amenable and amiable and in a way, we acted as hosts for the village, the strike's lodgings, if you like. at number 14, Ivanhoe Avenue. Strangers were sent there from all over the world.
As soon as the Dutch punks returned home they were on the blower to us asking me to go to Holland on a fund-raising trip. The union office then intervened saying they wouldn't let me go abroad by myself. I protested. as by now I was becoming more confidant and the strike was really begin to transform me as a person. I got mad insisting I wanted to go abroad by myself. The union was adamant and declared I had to go along with Albert. What about the cost though? Ingeniously this was solved as Persil soap powders at the time were awarding a two for the price of one deal provided you had cut enough Persil coupons from the soap powders packets. Again the pensioners came to our aid and we soon collected enough coupons and so off we went, Albert traveling on a Persil coupon.
Initially it was all rather embarrassing as I'd never been away with another man before. Despite all my recent personal breakthroughs, nonetheless I was shy and tongue-tied and didn't know how to hold a conversation with Albert. But Albert with his usual sensitivities towards women twigged on to this tremor and broke the ice by telling me about bridle harnesses. Intrigued as to what they were I got absorbed in his story as he explained he'd been on aircraft carriers during his stint in the RAF and the great slings that steadied the aircraft as they took off and landed, which I'd seen enough of at the cinema or on TV, were the bridle harnesses. After this things got easier and easier between us.
The punks at Rotterdam harbour met us and they immediately took us to our spacious lodgings in, of all places, a disused city brothel! It was brilliant staying in this brothel though my real problem and a source of embarrassment to me, was that I had to sleep, albeit in separate single beds, in the same room as Albert. The Dutch being so broad-minded rightly hadn't even considered this. And in no time my fears evaporated. The brothel didn't bother me in the slightest as the prostitutes and working girls were all behind the miners' strike including the bisexuals, the transvestites and the queens. One night three of the proper queens attended to my needs with one manicuring my fingernails, another my toe nails while yet another brushed and pampered my hair. It was so gloriously sensual and I just loved it. Another night in the brothel a pet mouse race was organised. One of the mice was called Thatcher and we placed bets on the mouse to lose! Albert thought the place was wonderful too, though he never knew where to put himself.
Fascinated as we were by all the places we visited, including Amsterdam and Utrecht, neither of us could ignore that the port of Rotterdam was shipping scab coal into Britain. As we went down to the wharves where all the coal was dumped by huge caterpillar loader & dumper trucks to be stored in big heaps, Albert had sussed out that security was lax and that the harbour walls were free from surveillance. We pointed this out to some of the young kids we were with and during the following night a big dumper was mysteriously pushed into the harbour. The young lads had rapidly got the message! They were excellent. Over the next few days this action made the headlines on the Dutch news broadcasts and perhaps also helped in raising more money that we expected.
As the strike continued although I sorely missed my children, I was less and less at home. These excursions left me completely knackered and was so bloody glad to be back home, made all the better knowing John was just waiting for me to return. The reality was that John loved me more than ever and our passion for each other became yet more intense, lit up by this extraordinary situation of a social civil war. It was brilliant even though circumstances had also created an extraordinary role reversal too. Previously John saw little of his children simply because of shift patterns and sheer hard work. The strike meant our children forged bonds with their Dad they never would have had if it hadn't been for the strike. John was simply lovely with the "babbies" as I still called them even though they were really growing up and John quickly found where the hoover lived.
John was also on hand to take all the telephone calls. At the beginning of the strike my Dad, even though initially not too sympathetic to the strike, agreed to pay the line rental. Fearful the line would be tapped by the government's secret police (it was) he requested we didn't make outside calls in case the state might use indiscretions to glean information or fabricate evidence to incriminate us. In fact on the phone we always tried to be as careful as possible and were always cagey about giving out information. But for those who have not experienced a similar situation, it never quite works out like this in practise, and no matter what you always get your security lapses. Nevertheless our phone was constantly ringing with people contacting us not only from most other UK cities but also from Ireland, Spain, Germany and the majority of other European countries and Australia. The Americas were soon to follow.
One day a guy called Luke phoned from Switzerland asking us if we'd come to Basle. Somehow, this Swiss youth had got our phone number in London. A few days later Luke turned up on our doorstep, his head shaved and dyed black with red spots – a ladybird haircut. He was with a few other young Swiss people. They had a big pot with them which one of their Mam's had made up for them full of different Swiss cheeses to be melted which we all dipped into. It was our first experience of fondue. It tasted smashing. Then these young lads and one lass went on the picket lines for a few days. Before his departure Luke made an arrangement with me asking if I could make a regular report on the strike for Sunshine Radio set up in Basle. It was then played live to a Swiss radio audience.
Above: JD gardening for the strike Above: Luke & John on the picket line
Little did I realise at the time but I'd made contact with the Swiss autonomous movement based mainly among young apprentices, though the unemployed and students were also involved. In previous years there had been riots in Swiss cities like Basle and Lausanne. The Italian Spring of the late 1970s had also been an influence on them. In fact Radio Sunshine was based on its more famous predecessor, Radio Alice in Bologna which had been closed down by the Italian state. I was only able to make these connections later through others explaining a bit of recent history to me. I'd of course got a lot to say and I didn't mince matters. By then in was August 1984 and the scabs were really going in, though they weren't turning over any coal, merely sitting in the canteen doing nowt waiting for tainted money from management. The infamous "Silver Birch" (an ageing apology for a real miner whom we referred to as "Dutch Elm disease") was doing his dirty work and, as to be expected, applauded by the media. On the Swiss airwaves I gave 'em hell along with the police, Mrs. Thatcher, the TV and everybody else who was against us. Finally I journeyed to Switzerland for ten days. My, oh my, how things rapidly change for the better on so many levels when a real insurrection is unfolding daily! On arriving in Basle I ended up at the Sunshine Radio station only to find a queue of people outside the building wanting to talk endlessly about the strike. This time my lodgings weren't a squat or a brothel but a Swiss trade union rest home situated in Alpine scenery where I slept under the biggest quilt I'd ever seen.
We travelled around the country from Basle to Zurich and Lausanne stopping off at smaller places all the way. One such place was Zug just beyond the top end of Lake Lucerne. In the centre of this rather sleepy town was a statue of a woman with a big wicker hamper strapped to her back. Local legend had it this woman, when alive, collected her drunken husband everyday from the local bier Keller and carried him home in the big wicker basket represented in the statue. Such menial praiseworthy devotion to the louse had obviously appealed to the burghers of this town. Such insults now maddened me and, together with some local women, we grafitted this offensive monument to imbecility. I was gob smacked to find out that in one Swiss Canton women still weren't allowed to vote. In As it so happens, Mrs Thatcher – that perverted, base expression of women's' emancipation and which is about all we can expect from the state – had a holiday home in Zug. There was a coal merchant in the town and one night we loaded up a wagon full of coal from the merchant's spacious yard and dumped it in the driveway of Thatcher's dwelling. It made the national headlines.
'll never forget this fundraising in Switzerland. Just before going on the platform of a packed meeting in I was horrified to discover I'd been labelled a 'terrorist' in the Swiss national press. Obviously this had all to do with the Sunshine Radio broadcasts and the police were really monitoring the rebellious youth movement there. Fearfully I got up to speak to the audience wondering if I was going to be arrested by the police and banged-up for months. Would I see my children again? Tears welled up. Not until I left Switzerland was I fully able to relax. Later it caused me to reflect how the authorities worldwide are prepared to use the terrorist epithet to criminalise all dissent at the same time as they covertly encourage terrorism everywhere. It's now greater than ever.....
About a month after I'd returned home from Switzerland there was a knock on our door. I opened it to find some clean cut suits with brief cases on our doorstep. Gulping I nearly panicked thinking they were Rotherham council officials perhaps trying to stop our rent allowance or if not that, certainly out to do us harm. They were however immediately too polite and courteous for Rotherham council. The suits smilingly explained they'd come from Basle and stepping inside they opened their briefcases and poured piles of cash money on our table. I rorred and rorred (wept) with tears of joy. To me it just looked like pinched money and I'd never seen so much in my life. Immediately the lot went down to strike headquarters and was distributed throughout the community for shopping as previously explained.
The media, picketing, scabs and the police
Although we rapidly learnt not to trust any of the media once the strike has started, a habit which hascontinued unabated for the past 20 years scarcely believing one word uttered on TV or in the newspapers, nonetheless the Daily Mirror ( if you like the Labour party paper) and despite being all over the shop as regards the strike, organised buses to take miners' kids to the seaside. It was called: "Miners' kids free passes for the Pleasure Beach". Kiveton Park got a bus too but then heartbreak asonly 52 kids could have seating accommodation. We had no choice but to put all the kids' names in a hat. Fortunately my two, Sarah and Matthew, were selected. The Daily Mirror organised supervision, that meant no strikers' or parents could be involved which I guess neatly fitted in with the sitting-on-the-fence attitude of the paper and wouldn't offend Labour leader, scabby Neil Kinnock, etc. At the end of a gloriously sunny day Sarah wrote in the sand: "Thank you Daily Mirror". The following day it was the front-page photograph of the newspaper. I wrote back to The Mirror and thanked them on behalf of my children and the letter was published in the letters' page. I then forgot about it until a fortnight later I received a kind reply from a Mr. Palmer from Blackpool saying he wanted to support a miners' family. He'd written the letter in exquisite italic script. Every week after that Mr. Palmer would send us a long letter together with postal orders plus drawings and photos for the kids. It turned out Mr. Palmer was a poor pensioner but the money was really for the kids although he sent me a separate postal order "to keep the house going". He insisted it was "important the kids have treats" and Sarah and Matt would then gleefully bounce off down to the Post Office's sweeties and goodies shop above the railway station. On meeting Mr. Palmer it turned out as a young man he'd fought in the Spanish civil war between 1936 and 1939 and he wondered how it all could come to this. He told us in detail about the Spanish social revolution and both John and I felt very humble listening to his experiences. At the end of the strike all women actively involved were given a silver goblet from the NUM. I immediately handed mine over to Mr. Palmer. He kept in touch with us but died a year later.
Things by now were really getting nasty. At the beginning of the strike I went to see my Mother-in-law, Molly. Rummaging through her odds and sods she presented me with a long hatpin she'd regularly used in the miners' strike of 1926. She also gave me a dram of pepper to throw at the police horses. Thus a long and honourable though buried tradition was reinvigorated: working class women generally of course had never really been passive. It was good advice and 50 years later the hatpin was again stuck in coppers and scabs.
Right from the word go the bridge across the railway on the road to Harthill was a constant battleground about who had control of the picket. It was also where the road narrowed somewhat and if you didn't get there early you couldn't effectively picket. It wasn't just confrontation and we played many an imaginative game against the authorities. One sticks in my memory. A couple of young lads got a job – a badly paid cash-in-hand job – for a few nights as bouncers in a Sheffield night club. A taxi would bring them home at daybreak, or rather straight to the picket line, still dressed in their tuxedos and bow ties provided by the nightclub. These two guys were full of fun as they played on old time music hall as typified in the silent movies of Stan and Olly – even performing a few daft, slapstick stunts. The funniest moment came when one of them lifted, and redeployed to more effect, a moment from Cool Hand Luke in which Paul Newman struggles against been broken in spirit as part of a Mississipi/Lousiana chain gang. Taking a slash in the hedgerow our young lad turned towards the coppers and shouted: "I'm shaking it boss" as he shook the hawthorn bush. We laughed our socks off .......
It wasn't always like this. Once things started hotting up what with the scabs and everything else, the police really were out to get each one of us individually. I'll never forget the day when hour upon hour myself and John and another guy hid in a big ditch from mounted police. They never found us. There were so few scabs initially they couldn't do any work so, as I've mentioned previously, they just lounged around in the canteen all day. John and I decided on an ingenious plan. We managed to get hold of a loud hailer and hid in the tall, thick bramble bushes across the railway from the canteen. We'd found enough unsavoury details about them from ex-girlfriends etc to get really down and dirty. One was useless in bed, one couldn't stop wanking and "Newbould, you're so smelly, that's why your girlfriends kept clear of you" etc. Psychologically the continual barrage was devastating and evidently was playing havoc with the scabs minds. Cops and management were furious as they well aware of the demoralising effect we were having on their pet scabs. So they sent in police dogs to get us.
As Kiveton was close to the Nottinhamshire borders, in the first few weeks of the strike miners mobilised in flying pickets along with others, descended on the Notts coalfield where mass scabbing was rampant. Although this sprang from a spontaneous desire among the ordinary strikers the targeting certainly wasn't. Much was made in the national press in late spring 1984 of the outta control hooligan behaviour occasioned by the 'invasion' of Nottinghamshire but it really wasn't like that. The central headquarters of the NUM in Barnsley – that quaint turreted Victorian castle-like building near the town centre – was the centre of the operations. The high command of the NUM conducted these operations with an iron fist, allowing little independent initiative on the local pit level. Sealed envelopes containing orders were sent out in Yorkshire from midnight onwards by dispatch riders to the loyal troops stationed at individual pits. The envelopes were opened by local union branch secretaries during the middle of the night and assembled strikers were ordered to go in cars, vans etc, to particular places in Nottinghamshire – Worksop, Ollerton, Bevercotes etc. No discussion took place on this level – knowing the feeling there wasn't much need for one anyway – and the strikers dutifully obeyed Barnsley union headquarters. Recently it would seem what is left of the once powerful NUM has tended to re-write history by saying their aim all along had been to picket coke depots, coal transport facilities, coal wharves and power stations etc. and not the scabs. What happened was that one day – two and a half months into the strike or so – out of the blue, the union changed course discouraging confrontation with the scabs, just at the moment this tactic was meeting with some success with more than a few turning turtle and coming belatedly out on strike.
Although these types of orders were issued with all the force of an edict, making it appear as if thestrike was being conducted in a totally regimented manner, this only characterised the earlier stages of the strike. As more and more people became motivated and started to take all kinds of individual initiatives without first informing head office, the union, or more particularly the local branches tended to go with the flow and seemed to dissolve into the wider movement because of all these additional, new ingredients. Thus our strike headquarters was the local NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) as it was also a drinking club (if you could afford it, although home brew a, not for sale, asset tended to be its main liquid refreshment) as it was for all other locals, as it was a place where all supporters initially headed for, as it was also a venue for gigs, parties and having a good time. The women too made an enormous difference particularly the way the momentum transformed each one of us in individually different ways. It even penetrated right up to the Barnsley central command. I was there amongst a group of women that went to see Arthur Scargill in his bungalow near Barnsley over something that was concerning us. He opened the door and ushered us in saying: "You must excuse me but I'm ironing" and proceeded to talk to us with a pinny on while ironing his shirts! Yet this was the man portrayed in the media as a dictator or as in the case of The Sun as "Mine Fuehrer." Sure we all collapsed in a fit of giggles once we left. Yes, Scargill was a bureaucrat and not at the centre of struggle like we were, but he had a way with him that grabbed people which the media deliberately neglected. He could not only be the house husband but a stand-up northern comedian on Blackpool pier - a characteristic JD rated whilst criticising his chauffeur driven car.
For a mother with young kids picketing wasn't so easy. I would get up at 4 am for the early picke when the scabs went in, then back home to send the kids to school, then down to the strike centre to make parcels and help with individual strikers' problems. I also took part in demonstrations, or assemblies, when bailiffs were coming to shut off gas and electricity supplies. Sheer weight of numbers could force them to beat a retreat. I have pleasant memories of all the men farting on picket lines as they'd just rolled out of bed and headed on down the road. No pomp and circumstance here. Later, between mid-May and mid-June, the set piece battle for the Orgreave coking plant situated between Kiveton and Sheffield commenced. Seeing it carried on day in and day out I gradually became part of the canteen staff ensconced in the cricket club on the playing fields just off the Old Retford Rd at Orgreave. I always tended to be busy here preparing food. On the day of the really big battle on the 18th of June 1984 when police moved in en masse I never even realised what a massacre was taking place until men covered in blood started turning up in the cricket club. Details like that you cannot forget....
Orgreave meant our hatred for the police, on returning to the Kiveton picket, had really built up.The coppers were parking their prison vans in the nearby pit yard. The pit canteen had been taken over by them, though they used the now famous, heritage-listed, clocktower as their prison. Efforts to grab me met with success only once and I was then stripped searched by men not women. The coppers were leering at me and there was much sexual innuendo. It was very humiliating. Now when confronting the picket, even though there were plenty of women present, the coppers would regularly get their willies out and piss towards us. This was usually the tactics deployed by the London Met and it created friction between different county constabularies, especially those from Devon and Cornwall, who were horrified at such behaviour. Indeed the inspector from Devon and Cornwall actually brought two pairs of his own shoes to give to the pickets at the pit gates.
However it was precisely their vicious and brutal behaviour that was really effective and helpedmilitarily win the strike for the police. Some of the cops would literally stoop to anything. Relaxing in their deluxe coaches, we'd regularly note how some of them would be watching hardcore porno films, out of their heads on all kinds of drugs. Videos were then just beginning to take off and hard core porn videos were practically unknown of then. It was, if you like, a precursor of what society everywhere, with the defeat of the social movement, was to become- a brutalised nothingness decked out with sexually charged imagery, with no scope for tenderness, love or caring. However, you must understand the coppers, after days and weeks on the picket lines and almost universally hated and stared at by every passer by with hate filled eyes, were now more than incensed, they'd gone insane. Allegedly pursuing pickets, they actually rode a horse into our small paper shop, even though the shop was too small to turn a horse around in. They then had a devil of a job getting out but the police were now too illogical to see that in the first place.
When we'd visit our lads banged up in local prisons a similiar behaviour was apparent. I'll neverforget going to see poor old Albert who'd finally been nicked and carted off to Lincoln jail. Being Xmas, a local market trader had donated a sackful of mixed nuts to be shared on the picket line. The police found them in the boot of Albert's car and claimed they were to be used as weapons against the horses. Albert was charged and given three months in prison. I'd cooked a whole load of food, pies and other things. The prison officers took off the lid from my food box and green-gossed all over my cooking, gleefully delighting in their vicious spite. Like the police they'd also become sick in the head. I was devastated and as soon as I was out of their sight I cried my eyes out. What a thing to do to a man. Shortly after the defeat of the miners, Albert died, his grief compounded by a tragic accident. His home had accidentally caught fire and one of his beloved daughters was burnt to death....
But, even now, the coppers could employ more subtle tactics, which were just as loathsome. A few had been instructed to get hold of little children and, in return for a few details about their parents, promise to buy them sweets, ice creams and lollipops. Many of the kids, in their innocence, would fall for this ploy. My son Matt, a 7-year-old kid, along with his mate was asked about our movements. He got his ice cream and sweets all right, then promptly ran off home telling the coppers to sod off. I'm proud of him for that.
To this day the police are hated in the former mining areas with a gut hatred as raw as ever in confrontations that hardly ever make the news, except when things really get out of hand. Thus a spate of cop car burnings early in the summer of 2004 in the ex-mining village of Goldthorpe a little to the north of us got on local news and was attributed to the strike.
You can't write about the police occupation of the villages without mentioning the scabs. They danced a vicious tango together. Inevitably, the world over, scabs are hated by their workmates. This feeling has always been particularly intense among the UK miners and the Dirty Blackleg Miner – a song originating in a Northumberland miners'strike during the late 19th century - is perhaps the most savage industrial folksong ever as it is an open incitement to kill scabs. Scabbing during the epic 1984-5 miners' strike was of a different order altogether, if that's possible. The scabs weren't, as in the past, just in the pay of management. They actually brought about the end of our communities, the coal industry and the end of ours (and ironically their) way of life. Myopia is too mild a term for their evil crimes. No wonder then most scabs have been forced to remain as they were - vicious, heartless, vindictive creatures and as psychotically insane as the police were during the strike. Many are armed and keep their hunting guns handy just in case someone takes justice into their own hands. Hatred for the scabs twenty years on hasn't diminished. A couple of months ago, an ex-miner celebrated his sixtieth birthday and invited a lot of his former workmates to what he hoped would be a good do in the pub. He'd been a scab albeit one that went in late in the day. Nonetheless, many of his old workmates never turned up to his celebration. He went home and hanged himself.
More recently, a few months ago in fact, there was a bitter argument between a scab and a striker - Keith "Froggy" Frogson - from Annesley Woodhouse in North Nottinghamshire. It got violent and the striker was killed. Before finally being arrested, the scab hid out for weeks in Sherwood Forest and the police search for him was featured on the national news several days running. The striker's funeral turned into a huge event with hundreds of people turning out from all over to honour him. As for myself, I still bristle up whenever I pass a scab in the street. Earlier in the year I attended a meeting protesting the proposed phasing out of care attendants for old people, a typical cost cutting exercise Rotherham council regularly tries out in the hope we get tired of responding. A scab from 1984 got up to say his bit more or less justifying the council's proposals. If anything, he was even more stupid, cocksure and arrogant than ever. In a way this is hardly surprising. Though this apology for a human being was axiomatic in destroying our community, it is their world all right, as the essence of a scab – knifing comrades, neighbours and workmates in the back – is the very essence of our free market society.
Friends and a resume
In particular here I must mention certain individuals who were exceptionally helpful as well as being tremendously clued-in theoretically in cutting through the crap. The autonomous French grouping, Os Cangaceiros was one such, as were radical individuals like Nick Brandt. The latter was particularly generous with his money as well as participating in creative episodes. For instance, seeing Xmas was coming up and with the strikers children in mind, he told me how he had asked smart London shops for donations to the miners' strike and those that didn't cough up he and his mates would rip-off blind. Mind you, even those shops that agreed also were shoplifted, but it didn't really matter as they had more than enough in this society of raging inequality. Thus all kinds of goodies were delivered to us. I remember Nick brought up smoked salmon which miners responded to by jokingly declaring: "What's this - uncooked fish caught off Bridlington pier" as they gobbled it up like there was no tomorrow!
Bit by bit throughout the strike you gradually became aware how a lot of the strike's supporters saw the struggle – if not as their own – but as if their lives somehow depended on its outcome. In a sense as the strike went on and on, you realised our struggle was a struggle for the whole of society although not realising this sharply until much later – even years after the event. You were also aware of how some young people from the upper echelons of society were hungry for your reality experiences and latched on to you as a form of surrogate life – sometimes giving you survival money as payment for feeding off your life. For a while this type of thing was OK but as the darkening years unfolded after the bitter defeat marking the end of the miners near civil war, it often felt like a leeching on your body, like you were being sucked dry by some vampire as increasingly some of them more and more criticised you for your inadequacies – even looking for all your Achilles heels – possibly because you hadn't saved them from their upper middle class fate which they had professed to loathe so much. It finally really pissed you off.... it was like you were merely actors in some real life soap opera – a situation they peered into only to tick you off – then to withdraw back into their own rarefied, privileged world – until the time came to tick you off all over again when they needed some extra oomph in their empty lives!
The emphasis here must be on the darkening years and the responses of different individuals. If we'd won everybody would have reacted in far more amenable, communitarian and understanding ways. That is apart from the real powers that be, who would have been in a state of complete panic and which all of us, bar none, would have relished.
Remember as a final resume of what I've written here, the defeat of the strike cracked nearly everybody apart who was engaged in trying to bring about its triumph. Cracking up so often brings out all our ugliest aspects and nobody wishes to come near for fear of being infected. The might of the system destroyed our ways of behaving and functioning in everyday life right down to the simplest of levels. We literally didn't know where to turn for succour. It was as though we lost all our past referentials. We couldn't go back but neither could we go forward. We lost a mighty strike only to become lost to ourselves. Losing any inner coherence we began to make crazy mistakes, highly personal mistakes with enormous personal consequences. Only yesterday we were the pole of attraction throughout the world and now we were nothing. Yesterday everybody wanted to meet us. Now nobody did and, in a way, we were used and spat out by the media as some sad story in yesterday's news. We were floundering all over the place, prey to so many outside forces that weren't our own. We were forced to submit to the increasing reign of money terrorism, when money was the last thing we'd got. Losing our famed practical communitarian common sense meant we became exposed to the state's cold as charity's array of social services right down to it's new army of up-to-the-minute therapists telling us how to 'live' and "move on" – as the idiotic mantra goes. When you are heartbroken the last thing you can do is move on! These snooty individuals merely tried to impose middle class forms of psychologising on us, completely clueless about our own more enlightened, humane ways of formerly doing things. Most of the time all they did was inflict even more damage on us. For these berks all we held dear belonged to 'the past'! After such defeat it takes a long, long time to get your life back on some kind of even keel, and many is the one who has been unable to do so.
As for me, like many others who'd been through the strike I tried university and studied sociology at Sheffield and then took a teaching degree at Huddersfield University. True we could do it and a reasonably large proportion of unemployed, desperate people got degrees though most didn't use it to then take up a career. Later I was to sadly compare my university experiences with my earlier evening classes when I learned how to make things like corn dollies. The latter was something I could put to practical use with other people, while university tended to be so much ideological hogwash having nothing to say about my living situation. Despite this offer of a 'new life' our real lives fell apart, our marriages, relationships and families broke up as all connecting links that kept our community vibrant were smashed to smithereens. Every living thing that couldn't be turned into a commodity was stolen from us – most of all our ways of behaviour and what was in our hearts – a microcosm if you like for what capitalism was already doing to nearly everybody else. Our strength had been that we had resisted these unwanted developments for so long.
In these reminisces I've tried to give some idea how the memory of the miners' strike remains very much alive in our neck of the woods. Today we are faced with the rundown of major energy resources especially oil and gas. This is irreversible. The "dash for gas" refrain was first heard during the miners strike and though the term has pretty much dropped out of use, the reality is the UK is becoming overwhelmingly more reliant on gas. The momentum has been opportunistically maintained by each successive government solely in order to smother the social vision and example of the coal miners. It was necessary to destroy a rebellious working class here and we were at its core. In so doing power (in more ways than one) has created a dilemma for itself it cannot escape easily from. Clean coal, though expensive, has become a reality since 1984-5. JD was never conned into thinking we'd seen the end of coal. In the years after he'd been invalided and following the wholesale pit closure programme of the early 1990s, he especially noted the huge coal barges navigating the Trent and the Aire/Calder navigation, containing coal direct from the Rotterdam spot market. He often said a new generation of coal miners would have to be trained and he wouldn't be there to enlighten them! Oil and gas will eventually be depleted and renewables can only have a limited effect in meeting the exponential rise in capitalisms energy needs. Meanwhile, according to 'the experts', there are at least 140 years of accessible coal in this country. However we were responsible for inflicting the biggest trauma ever inflicted by this country's industrial working. We are the real unforgiven and our Pandora's box must never again be re-opened.
Nuclear energy is far preferable and the state will pursue this option with an unrelenting, crazed determination rather than think the unthinkable, which means countenancing the return of the miners. But will the public take this lying down? Pandemonium could ensue and in which case the state may be forced to confront its trauma over the mining of coal. Many ex-miners and the few miners that are left here are increasingly aware that this is the case and everywhere are beginning to vociferously say so. Why else have new vast coal wharves (at the cost of half a billion pounds) been proposed for the mouth of the Humber to ship in coal from all over the world? The oft repeated catch phase "coals to Newcastle" is a by-word for economic absurdity all over the English speaking world and still is as relevant as ever. World shipping is almost totally dependent on oil which, once oil prices really start to rise, will add greatly to the cost of imported coal. Even the simplest cost benefit analyses will tell you that.
John in his last few years kept a notebook often full of reflections. In it he briefly sketched out his views on The Ridley Plan drawn up by the Thatcher Government after their ignominious retreat over pit closures in 1982. There was an immediate wave of wild cat strikes and, coming so soon after the great urban rebellions of inner city youth in 1981, it was thought prudent to temporarily give in. John called the Plan: "The bluest blueprint this side of the drawing for The Titanic" put into place, "so that Capital and the global market would not be seriously threatened again in the UK". Our defeat also became the blueprint for New Labour whose descent in to horror knows no end. With barely even a whisper of protest from within the party, it has increasingly aligned itself with America's neocons who are hell bent on bringing about a biblical endgame apocalypse.
Was our end the end for everyone else? Cortonwood was called the Alamo – thus far and no further. But it was also the Titanic and, if you recall, nobody who defended the original Texan Alamo, survived. Did our defeat herald a world where the boot (as Orwell said) would be forever pushed into the human face, albeit a redesigned boot with a Nike or Adidas logo? The miners are dead. Long live the miners!
Jenny Dennis: Autumn 2004
Addendum. Extracts from some notes I kept during 1984
Plight of Single Men: Latest concern. One lad has completely disappeared from village. Some because of harassment at home and stress are living in picket huts and a union local (Nalgo) are so concerned they are investigating the possibility of a central care station for growing number, which the community financially cannot support. Mark, aged 19 admitted to hospital – anorexic – last week. Guilt – eating food when he was breadwinner for widowed mum and schoolgirl sister.
22nd August 1984: Scabs reported for work. Two live in village. Village invaded by police.
Women able to picket own pit in larger numbers at 4 am and 12 pm. Community exposed directly to police provocation of violence and harassment. Complaints pour in plus my complaint re: urinating in public. Abuse at women, £20 note! Whores!....Reaction on witnessing brutality may mean arrest certainly detention at local station for up to six hours. 69 year old woman shouted: "Why do that he didn't do anything. Bullies". Then taken three quarters of a mile away and left to find own way back home in her slippers. She was found in tears! Four weeks ago, three 17-year-old girls were arrested after passing scabs on their way home. The girls were taken to Maltby - six miles away - and kept for three and a half hours where they became a freeshow mistreated and referred to as whores and lesbians. Charged with breach of the peace! Case brought to court a week later followed by further charge of threatening behaviour. Common practice to introduce extra charges if police fear original charge may not stick....There have been 80 arrests in the village involving 7 prison sentences of up to three weeks. Bail conditions imposed vary – not to picket own colliery or only picket own colliery or do not enter certain areas i.e. Nottinghamshire, or curfew by 9pm.
Women: First women in dispute. Part time workers now bread winners. In a traditionally male dominated area men acknowledge women's role and openly admit without our support in presenting solid front may not have been able to continue. Witnessing changing attitudes and political awareness of women. We can never return to status quo. Women now motivated and will continue to react against injustice and protect communities. Thrown away pinnies, overcome traditional male dominance.
For other articles on the 1984-5 miners' strike see the following on the RAP web: