Women Of The Miners Strike
Published by Sutton Publishing
This is an immensely moving book. In some ways though, the title and the
cover photo of Women Against Pit Closures is rather misleading. This isn't
so much a book about women in the miners strike of 84/5, but a snap shot
biography of five women who participated in that strike as activists.
It tells their stories, their lives up to and after the great strike in
their own words. People looking for some Hovis nostalgia, of quint happenings
on cobbled streets will be in for shock if they chance upon this book
to provide it. So too those who have convinced themselves that class doesn't
really exist anymore and everyone is bathed in a kind of middle class
security blanket. Life for these women was often brutality harsh, and
their words are equally frank and stark. The work traces the lives of
the women in the run up to the historic clash and how they featured within
it and where they all stand now since it is over. The fifth women in the
story is anonymous because her life is now severely damaged and she couldn't
face the prospect of being identified, while others have coped quite well
and ironically benefited from the experience, or perhaps made best use
The book is compiled and authored by Triona Holden a young journalist
of the period and accomplished writer and broadcaster. At the time her
sister was married to a militant Barnsley miner and she herself worked
at the Sheffield Star, in the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfield.
As a young female journalist thrown into the thick of that monumental
struggle, she has an amusing set of experiences to relate which are told
with true comedy. She had wanted to do a piece, live for radio Sheffield,
hot from the picket line, with sounds of the pickets in full verbal assault
on scabs and police and the noise of battle raging. However as soon as
they seen her she became the event ."The only trouble was that every
time the miners caught site of me they stopped shouting "scabs"
and serenaded me with a popular football chant especially adapted for
the occasion. It went something like the song Leeds United, Leeds
United, we'll support you to till we die, well support you till
we die, only the words had been changed to get your tits out,
get your tits out, get your tits out for the lads..
I pretended to be one of the boys and laughed back at them to show it
was water off a ducks back. But it meant that I couldn't do the classic
live broadcast that started I am standing here in front of...To
do so would risk ending up with a famous bosom and zero credibility."
This is not a history of Women Against Pit Closures, or women of
the coalfields per sae. There are features of women's involvement,
over roles and perceptions over which women argued constantly and invariably
split over. Was it a Ladies support group or a 'women's support
group this was a vexious issue as was whether to work in the kitchen
or go on pickets and tub thumping around the country. Most communities
split along these lines too, with women generally doing one role or the
other and sometimes in spite of each other. Many pit communities boasted
more than one Women's Support group, and it had nothing to do with location,
but everything to do with politics and perception and the struggle for
ideas now out in the open of debate and struggle. None of this is really
touched on here.
Women Against Pit Closures was a thoroughly indigenous movement in the
mining communities. I was therefore baffled by the reference to "
those who were parachuted into the coalfields, and once the action was
over headed back to their middle class London homes to write their PhDs."
We none of us know of anyone who meets this description unless Triona
is referring to herself or one of her friends.
Triona is to be congratulated on bringing these women back together in
print and allowing them to have their say in their own way. I have however
criticisms of Trionas own perceptions in attempting to outline the
strike, its causes and the position in post 84/85 mining communities.
She makes no attempt to challenge the press misinformation peddled at
the time of the dispute and repeats many of the myths. "Arthur Scargill
called for a walk out- there was no national ballot" (pg. 2 introduction)
The strike started in Yorkshire, (where incidentally there had been a
ballot a couple of years before in anticipation of impending closures).
The Yorkshire miners voted at mass pithead meetings and welfare mass meetings
to strike in defence of jobs and in particular against the closure of
Cortonwood Colliery. Arthur wasn't in the Yorkshire Area during this period.
He had no mechanism whatever to call for a walk out and didn't
speak at the meetings which decided to do so, nor even was he present
at them. The decision NOT to have a national ballot, was one decided upon
by a national delegate conference representing every pit and workplace
in the mining industry. The resolution to that effect came from Yorkshire,
Arthur didn't speak in favour of it, or any of the other resolutions at
that conference as he was in the chair and remained impartial throughout.
When the vote was taken he didn't vote and their was no NEC recommendation.
But she actually says she doesn't want to dwell on how the strike started
" But that is all academic now. The strike happened. It lasted a
year." Actually yes it is academic, but shouldn't a journalist in
an industry which created so many myths now repeated by academics
and academic works to the point where history has been reinvented actually
take the time to study and print the facts this time round ? Instead she
compounds those myths and misinformation, the notion that somehow the
strike was something the miners had been manipulated into and had no control
over, for example. "I witnessed the damage it did to real people,
not politicians, or union bosses who didn't know what it was like to go
hungry. The victims were families like yours and mine, the silent majority
who were generally law-abiding,authority respecting souls" (pg. 4)
She also has an unfortunate turn of phrase which alludes to the well known
common sense conclusion that all this, pit closures and job
losses , defeat of the NUM were somehow preordained. She calls it "the
inevitable passing of their way of life." And "they were drowning
in a dying culture". It wasn't inevitable at all of course. The strike
as it was, came to within a gnats bollock of winning, and defeating the
whole Thatcher scheme, not just the pit closures on at least three occasions.
This is evidenced by subsequent research and not least the biographies
of MacGregor and Thatcher herself. Had the offensive against the miners
and the NUM came to spectacular and violent grief her whole perspective
against the Unions et al would have crumbled with her entire government
rationale. They would have fallen and the whole New Labour Frankenstine
would have been stillborn. So none of this culture had to drown, and their
was nothing inevitable about the fate of the pit communities.
Triona also gives a very confusing impression as to the chronology of
the struggle against closures and in defence of pit communities especially
by the women.
Her book starts at the end so to speak, with a recent small protest against
the closure of the last of the Selby super-pits Riccall. The Selby Coalfield
closed last year after mining 100, million tonnes of coal in twenty years,
but abandoned twice that much still virginal and untapped. She contrasts
the small assembly with the mass protests of 84/5. She leaves out completely
however the resurgent mass struggle of 1992/93 when women, if anything,
played a much more leading role than they had in 84/85 and took the initiative
from the union. To read Triona and presumably her selection of writing
from the women, one would believe we went straight from 1985 to today
and the mass movement and civil disobedience and strike action of 1993
just didn't happen. It doesn't rate a mention.
Talking of a photo of Cortonwood pickets Feb. 1985 "It was taken
in February 1985 at the end of the dispute- a time when it was clear the
government had won. The world in which these people had lived was coming
to an end: nothing would ever be the same." Well if she is talking
of the Cortonwood mine and perhaps something of its community that may
be true, but it wasn't true of the miners or the industry. To this extent
Thatcher had actually failed. By 1987/88 there were still well over 100,000
miners in the industry, more than 80% of whom belonged to the NUM supplying
up to 90% of all power to the national grid. Our way of life was not coming
to an end in 1985, not overall anyway. This would require a further offensive
against the miners, this time launched by John Major in 1992/93 and a
new battle commenced. It wasn't until our defeat after that further struggle
that we could see the terminal decline and utter destruction of the British
coal industry and the pit communities. But in 1985 we actually still had
it all to play for.
I must say that despite the realities depicted by the women folk themselves
the author tends to give contemporary events rather a rose coloured spin,
like it all worked out well in the end.
"The women say their public enemy number one, Margaret
Thatcher, is a case in point. As she wiped away tears when she got the
sack as Prime Minister, the mining folk felt they had the last laugh.
They delight in the thought that the property boom, nascent in Thatcher
years, has benefited their communities. It has meant that the more historic
and traditional pit villages have become gentrified .The humble homes
that miners struggled to hang onto through the strike are now worth many
times what they were in 1984/85. They had no idea that they were sitting
not just on coal mines but gold mines as well. And what a twist of fate
that this good fortune is down to policies championed by the women who,
they feel, tried to destroy them." She make the point more than once
that she is quite chuffed to see old pit houses selling for £100,000.
In the odd rural pit community this might be the case though it is rare,
it is however overall a rather selective reflection. Most people visiting
the former pit communities of Britain, from Scotland to Barnsley to Wales,
see not gentrified villages but the deprivation, the poverty
and run down communities rotten with hopelessness, unemployment, the black
economy, anti social crime and drug addiction. Overwhelmingly former miners
are living on benefits and their children if they are working at all are
in dead end jobs, or else have moved away. They top the list for ill health,
infantile mortality, premature death and chronic disease. True, the backwash
of the southern property boom, creating a property shortage, has meant
even the humble pit house has risen in value maybe by a factor of five
over the last fifteen years. But that's not the point. Who wants to move
to a pit village with no pit and no work in a community which has lost
all hope ? How do you sell a house here and expect to get enough money
to buy another one not in a place of chronic unemployment and deprivation
which have seen prices rise by a factor of ten or more ? The only folk
buying houses here are the same folk who have always lived here. If you
cant rent, and normal folk seemingly cant, all you have left is to mortgage
yourself up to your eyeballs and live in debt. Old folk move into old
folks homes or with relatives, freeing up some old houses while those
younger people landing one of the scarce jobs, usually working away, might
manage to move up the property scale a little and take out a new mortgage,
but none of this is hardly what I would call 'gold mining' .
I have no wish to nit pick Trionas work, this is a good initiative
and a good book if looked at mainly from the lives of the women telling
their own stories, which is anyway its point. It is disappointing that
even someone like Triona who is clearly moved by the strengths and lives
of the women she has studied did not take time to set right the background
history and subsequent events in which those women engaged. As biographies
of working class fighting women, well done, as a social history of the
miners struggles, look elsewhere.