Published on 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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8 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Paul,

    “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.”

    Wrong.

    In this country, anyone who fights to protect his/her society and family is indeed “radical”. It applies even more in the 21st century.

    The lies and propaganda of the tories/New Labour/LibDems may still have traction with London spivs and apologists, but even that won’t go for ever – it only seems like it. Sooner or later the scam will be turned on those blood suckers too. It may take years before the scales fall from eyes, but mark my words they will. The bribery will only last as long as the bribed are stupid enough to believe the propaganda.

    The biggest suckers of all were the scab Nottinghamshire miners “led” by Roy Lynx. When they too were double-crossed Lynx ended up underground in isolated “protest”. So much for HIS “leadership”.

    For as long as capitalism lasts (in whatever form) there will ALWAYS be a clash of Labour V Capital. If the last generation has demonstrated anything it is there can be no compromise with capitalism and its apologists. Moreover, the temporary victories of capital have created the kind of corrupt, rotten-to-the-core society everybody on the Left warned of years ago. Running away to London might provide some temporary relief but history will take its inevitable course. Until then, there is much, much worse in store.

    Many of the miners may not have been ideologically motivated, but they knew when they were being attacked and what it would bring in the future. And they were right. The disgusting, corrupt, London-based establishment has proved it at every level.

    As for David Hart and his gang…..they have been replaced by an even worse suited-up mob of liars and thieves that would sell their own grandmothers if it would help reduce their council tax (read: poll tax) bill or buy a few more rentable properties. Rachman lives again.

    In the end the “…puzzling social world of modern Britain…” is not so puzzling after all. It was all forecast years ago. And the Dystopian reality has arrived. So sit tight and swallow it because the smug thievery will go on for more years yet. Or for as long as people allow it.

    1. Petbuck says:

      Your’e right , I’ve touched on this subject , and plenty more in my publication due out end July title ; The Witches Within Westminster ( it’s exposure of the Truth during the Thatcher years)

  2. Robert Taggart says:

    Sounds good – hoping it will go on tour – there be a whole country outside Lundun for it to visit ! Theatre in the round ? – The Royal Exchange in Mancy would welcome it.

    Me still thinks the right side won – it was time to move on – mining and miners were an archaic nay anarchic presence in Blighty.

    Signed, Thatcherite Scrounger !

  3. Alan says:

    Unable to comment on the performances as I haven’t seen them. The history of those times has been fictionalised in favour of the state too many times. If the final paragraph of the article is anything to go by then an evening of fantasy is to be enjoyed.

  4. Philip says:

    As a coalminer’s grandson, I was profoundly interested and moved by the miners’ strike. I still believe that if Arthur Scargill hadn’t tried to use it as a way of bringing down the Government (despicable though it was, it was lawfully elected), there could have been a victory of sorts. But the world has moved on and, as you rightly describe, the identities and communities which existing in mining (and other manufacturing) areas have altered virtually beyond recognition and it’s clear we are still paying the price for these changes.
    But we are where we are, not where we’d like to be. There is a lot that is corrupt, despicable and shameful about our modern world & its political, media & other institutions and we have an economic system which has placed labour under the heel of capital. Though there are some, like Mr Edwards, who plainly believe that some form of socialist or Marxist revolution will radically change this…or perhaps, being true to Marx, the inherent contradictions of capitalism will make it collapse and a purer, fairer economic & social system will emerge. Much as I’d like this to be the case, I can see no evidence that it is likely to happen. The world is both interconnected – and almost everywhere is controlled by a relatively small number of wealthy, powerful people who control information flows & the media in various ways. The structures and processes may differ, as between the US, UK, Russia, China, etc, but in terms of the few and the many, the similarities are greater than the differences.
    What Marx never reckoned on was consumerism, the power of the media to distract and mislead, and the power of xenophobia, racism & religion. For genuine change to fairer societies, you need a sufficient number of people who can see through these things and take action and a sufficient number who will support or at least go along with it. I don’t believe such numbers exist and those who hold power in countries across the globe are only too well aware of the need to ensure that the numbers of those who seek radical change are marginalised, if not actually targeted as deluded, dangerous or ludicrous.
    If change is going to come from anywhere, it’s going to have to start at the bottom and work its way up. It needs to be realistic, while satisfying people’s desires for fairness and justice. It is likely to be non-ideological, non-religious and non-political. It is going to need to be clear, resilient and as inclusive as possible. In treating all as we wish to be treated ourselves, it will avoid the rhetoric of hatred, anger and contempt. To make things better, we need to be better ourselves.

  5. nick j says:

    Arthur Scargill was addressing a meeting at the side of a lake when a gust of wind blew his cap off and sent it skating into the middle. Scargill stopped speaking, walked across the water, put his cap on and resumed his speech as if nothing had happened.

    Next day’s headline in the Sun: Arthur Scargill can’t swim.

  6. Dj Footprint says:

    Very well put Phillip – and some very true comments made, ie: the reference to the Nottinghamshire Miners and Roy Lynx. I was only in my mid-teens at the time, but used to
    accompany a good friend’s Father over from Lancashire where we lived – over to Yorkshire
    and beyond – seeing first-hand the tactics and thuggery of Thatcher’s hired troops – The Police,
    who’s duty it was supposed to be was serve the public – not beat them into submission at the
    will of the ‘Iron Lady’ who’d just given them a whopping pay rise.
    No wonder they had to cremate her. There would be queue’s for miles still to tramp (and worse) on her grave.
    David Hart and his cohorts were the true ‘Enemy Within’ – as are you, Robert Taggart.

    1. Robert Taggart says:

      Time has moved on DJ – with only ‘footprints’ to show for our mining industry !
      Agree with your sentiments about Maggies ‘Minders’ – now be the time to turn on them – even a Tory Home Secretary wants to !
      The Miners be a threat no more. The extreme Left be a threat no more. The Footy fanatics be a threat no more…
      The Kops though – they be more of a threat to civil society than ever before – emboldened by the support of all governments since Maggies – whether right or wrong.
      Ergo – Orgeave, Hilsborough, The Met (too many misdemeanours to list !)… – time is ripe for the maximum ‘assault’ by legal means upon these thugs – the new ‘enemy within’ !

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