I come from a long, long line of coal miners (certainly on one side of my family – there’s some strange blood on the other, to be sure). Coal dust is in my veins, as it is in the area where I grew up in the English Midlands. The houses round here used to be black with the coal embedded in the brick from centuries of the stuff being transported from the mines. The landscape was apocalyptic – slag heaps rising to the sky, and palls of smoke from where the seams underground had caught alight.
Against the grim outside world, there was a powerful sense of community. The miners existed alongside death and disability on a daily basis, and lived life to the full whenever they came back into the light. I remember pubs packed with thick-armed, tattooed men, downing pints of bitter and singing raucously, the wives joining their husbands on Saturday nights for singalongs and dancing at the working men’s club, the tall tales, the ghost stories and underground mythologies, and most of all the laughter that bound everyone together.
It’s all gone now. In the early 1980s, the Conservative Government decided to break the back of the troublesome miners’ union and close the pits, including my local ones. The ensuing strike was furious and hard-fought. It tore apart families, villages, friends. Eventually the union lost and the mines were closed. No one round here has forgotten it. Children are told tales of the wicked witch Margaret Thatcher who threw all the men on to the poverty line, brought depression and suicide, left families hungry and killed off the villages. Killed the communities dead.
On the one hand, it’s better round here now. The slag heaps are gone, replaced by green parks and forests. The houses are clean. Work has gradually crept back, but only after years of pain. But that sense of community was gone. The pubs all seem strangely empty to me. Not enough laughter, not enough joy in living. I miss that old world.
A friend of mine, David Bell, has written a book about the strike – The Dirty Thirty – Heroes of the Miners’ Strike (Five Leaves). It celebrates the struggle of the thirty Leicestershire miners who showed great courage in standing up for their beliefs and coming out on strike when many around them argued against it.
Dave interviews the surviving members of The Dirty Thirty, and also talks to the womens’ support group. On the blurb, Tony Benn says this book “is of the greatest importance”. You can order it directly from Dave and get it signed or pick it up from Amazon, Borders and Waterstones.