I’m writing this article on March 3, 2015. Yesterday, I lost my job. The company I work for is closing down and although I’ve been there for a long time – 16 years in fact, as a copywriter – I will soon punch out my final full stop and vacate the premises for good.
While I may carry out my belongings in a box like a refugee from Lehman Brothers, there won’t be a camera crew outside or any protests organised by my union – for the simple reason that I don’t have a union. That’s because I’m a copywriter and we’re fated to type our words alone.
Thirty years ago to the day, the greatest union of them all received the punch that knocked it to the ground. According to a most authoritative source, namely my own 1985 diary: “Today sees a great tragedy for the working people. Scargill announced that the NUM will organise a mass return to work on Tuesday, so the end of the miners’ strike has come.”
I was 17-years-old, approaching A-levels, and some might say if there was one club I wasn’t eligible to join it was the one belonging to ‘working people’. But, as a revolutionary Sheffield teen with gel in my hair and fire in my heart, the previous year had opened my eyes. Though it was ending with a whimper, the strike had shown me that collective action could trigger the biggest of bangs; not, sadly, the resonant thump of victory, but rather the roar of the State under threat. And though the echo has faded, reading From a Rock to a Hard Place by Beverley Trounce brought some of those ancient reverberations ebbing back.
Though the book is subtitled Memories of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike, you’ll search in vain for any recollections by policemen within its pages. This is a book with a partisan purpose: to give voice to people who, as Trounce would no doubt argue, were denied true access to the media during the time of their greatest need – people whose voices were distorted and whose humanity was denied – in order to tell the strike’s story from behind their lines.
The Great Miners’ Strike of 1984/85 (to borrow the naming convention favoured by this book) was triggered when the Government announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery in South Yorkshire. The police were spirited into place almost before anyone knew what was happening. Clearly the Thatcher government was prepared, determined to take down the union that had beaten her predecessor, Edward Heath, and there were pitched battles straight from the off. But while the subsequent narrative arc may now be familiar – from outrage and optimism in early ‘84, through anger and excitement and on to the plunge into betrayal and despair – it seems that an unflinching, unglossed memory can still prickle at your skin.
This book is full of memories. Dip inside and you’ll find compelling recollections on every page. It isn’t solely about first-person memoir – Trounce knits the narrative together neatly, not skimping on facts but never dawdling over a surfeit of detail – it’s the oral history that lends the book its narrative weight. From the response to a Kent miner who asked his arresting officer why he was being picked up – “don’t worry, I’ll think of something” – to the numerous heartbreaking tales of desperation and disbelief at the bitterness of the battles, it’s a story that retains its living spirit while also serving as a relic of the past.
Big strikes were once something that Britain was good at. Growing up in the 1970s, I saw them on the news all the time: factory car parks, hands aloft, great waves of men and women surging and swaying and making demands, churning oceans of humanity on which hopes were floated and in which hearts were sunk. And all that stuff we had to do when someone withdrew their labour – lighting our bedtime candles, boiling our drinking water, piling bin bags in the street – it happened so often it hardly even felt like an inconvenience, and as a child it just seemed like the way of the world.
By the 1980s it began to feel different: the stakes seemed higher, the confrontations more fierce. By 1984 we were used to open conflict in the streets: riot vans and snatch squads, inner cities burning, the chilling manifestations of Mrs Thatcher’s buck-stopping zeal. And although the miners’ strike wasn’t necessarily the final face-off, it was certainly the climax of our century’s class war; everything that followed took place in the shadow of the miners’ defeat. For those who weren’t around at the time – and at 30 years’ distance, I have to remind myself that it’s now as far back as the Jarrow March was when I was born – that’s why we’re still going on about it. That’s why these voices still need to be heard.
Rich with contemporary photographs (mostly by miners rather than journalists which subtly shifts the viewpoint away from more establishment sources) and dense with badges, posters and other memorabilia, the book can’t help but stimulate my own long-buried memories of that one extraordinary year. But whereas my thoughts tend towards the nostalgic – entwined as they are with teenage awakenings of every kind, both political and romantic, exalted and profane – From a Rock to a Hard Place reminds me that the immense confrontations of my youth didn’t happen just so that I could get my kicks. They happened because economic interests were colliding, because communities were at war, because, not to get too Dave Spart about it, the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.
When strike veteran Charlie Cibor recalls his first trip down the pit aged just 15, it’s the words of a manager that he remembers: “There will come a time when you’ll be down here and summat will go wrong. Maybe summat will collapse and you’ll be trapped. All you will have is one another.”
It was the miners’ understanding that they had the support of one another that led them into such a decisive struggle, and it was the realisation that some of that support was less than solid than expected that cast the first ominous shadow over the strike. While clashes with police were righteous confrontations with a uniformed enemy, there are frank tales of open intimidation between strikers and scabs that hint at a complexity that isn’t explored in this book. Consequently, the extent of the defeat was such that the concept of “supporting one another” is now diminished; it means bluster and a token day of action rather than the rank and file fighting to the end.
While there will always be arguments about the ways in which trade unions once dominated our lives, I can’t help dwelling on my own imminent redundancy and the way that individuals are now cast adrift, alone. I could use a bit of that miners’ solidarity but, as another anniversary passes and the memories of those who were there begin to fade, I fear that the battered, bloodied pages of From a Rock to a Hard Place are as close as I’m ever going to get.
From a Rock to a Hard Place: Memories of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike by Beverley Trounce is published by The History Press