2 Jul 2014

30 years on – the miners’ strike retold for a new generation

Wonderland play

“There’s a knock on door…Turns out he’s a Hoover salesman. Anyway, he walks straight into lounge, and without saying a word about it to me, chucks a sack of soil on me carpet. Then he says to me, don’t worry, performs miracles it does. I said it better f*****g do, I’ve had no electricity for twelve week.”

I heard that joke 30 years ago from a striking miner. And again last night, verbatim, in Beth Steel’s play Wonderland, this time from the mouth of her fictional character “Colonel”, a Nottinghamshire miner on strike, but sick of it.

We’re in the middle of a whole series of 30-year anniversaries of the strike: the outbreak, Orgreave (16 June) and coming up the docks strike, which momentarily forced Margaret Thatcher to consider deploying troops. This winter, a whole series of bitter memories will be stirred, with the 30th anniversary of the police takeover of pit villages, the straggling return to work and ultimate defeat.

Steel’s play, at the Hampstead Theatre, is one of two important retakes on the strike authored by people too young to remember it. The second is the documentary Still The Enemy Within, by Sinead Kirwan and Owen Gower, which won the audience prize at Sheffield Doc/Fest last month.

When it comes to the strike, I make no pretense of disinterest. The floor of my flat was fairly regularly carpeted with miners in sleeping bags. The oldest patrilineal relative I can trace on Ancestry.com has the words “coal miner, below, colliery, underground dataller” against his name.

What’s interesting about both Steel’s play is the way it’s filtered the essence of the story.

The first half takes place underground. Since the 1977 Ken Loach drama The Price of Coal I can’t remember seeing the underground world of a coal mine portrayed at all. Here it is staged with extreme detail and care (Steel’s father is a miner and the cast visited a working mine to research the roles).

The set — a massive complex of scaffolding, lifts and iron grilles — takes you to the kind of place 202,000 men worked in 1984. As it’s theatre in the round you can also see the faces of the young Hampstead types as they react to the men going to the toilet in the same plastic bag as they’ve brought their lunch in; to the semi-nudity; the endemic swearing.

Then — because the details of the strike have become condensed to what you can learn from Billy Elliott — the same young, educated faces stare in disbelief as the character of David Hart emerges. Hart was a Tory journalist who lived in Claridges and co-ordinated the creation of an anti-strike union, UDM. A playwright and millionaire, his role only emerged after the strike was over so this, I think, is the first time anybody has portrayed on stage how the British state used extra-constitutional means to defeat the men on strike.

Steel puts the political actors — Hart, coal boss Iain McGregor and Conservative minister Peter Walker — on stage beside the coal-caked flesh of the miners. In this way the conflict is reduced to its pure essence: that between rich political people and male, manual workers whose traditions of class solidarity seemed as alien to the politicos then as they will do to most young people who watch this play now.

The genius of Steel’s play is to show where that solidarity comes from. The men she writes about were not radical at all. They’d even cheered, says one, when they saw the police bashing rioters in Brixton three years before.

The solidarity they profess is based primarily on work and danger. And on a version of masculinity that is almost non-existent now.

Police and strikers at Orgreave

If I had to think of one reason to tell a young person to go and see this play about an event that happened 30 years ago it would be to witness what several hundred years of work and danger can produce by way of a collective male culture, and how quickly it has disappeared under the pressure of globalization, sexual freedom and technological change.

The storytelling around the miners’ strike has tended to focus, over time, on the positive: the personal liberation miners’ wives experienced; the links miners made with other communities — including the lesbians and gay men who reached out to ultra-traditional villages in Wales.

Wonderland, by portraying miners’ lives and culture as they were, and by focusing on men only, shows why a certain kind of solidarity could not cope with the complex, harsh, economy that was emerging.

It explains, in microcosm, the puzzling social world of modern Britain: of people over the age of 40 still dazed by the speed of change, educated for the wrong things, brought up to expect kindness, social cohesion and respect for their traditional identity but confronted instead by the opposite.

* Wonderland by Beth Steel is on at the Hampstead Theatre, London until 26 July.

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