North and South

Raphael Samuel

  • Coming Back Brockens: A Year in a Mining Village by Mark Hudson
    Cape, 320 pp, £16.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 224 04170 3

‘This is the story of simple working people – their hardships, their humours, but above all their heroism.’ The epigraph which introduced the 1939 screen version of The Stars Look Down – the words are possibly those of A.J. Cronin, the novelist, rather than of Carol Reed, the film’s director – signalled a remarkable turn-around in attitudes to the miners, as well as prefiguring what was to be the leading idiom of British wartime cinema. The success of the film itself (fear of censorship had held it back for three or four years) encouraged a spate of ‘grimly honest’ realist dramas. As Graham Greene remarked of one of them, the colliery winding gear, silhouetted against the sky, the pit disaster and the warning siren became as cinematically familiar as the Eiffel Tower or the Houses of Parliament. A.J. Cronin, the best-selling novelist whose fictions probably did as much as the Beveridge Report – and certainly more than the Thirties poets – to secure Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 election, had served one of his medical apprenticeships in the Rhondda valley; amputating the leg of a miner trapped in a rock fall had been his initiation in this work and it seems that the disaster in the Scupper Flats, which is the climax of The Stars Look Down, though set in Co. Durham rather than South Wales, was based on a real life rescue operation in which, as the local doctor, he was called on to take part. The Stars Look Down, showing the ways in which human greed put the miner’s life at risk, helped to turn nationalisation from a Fabian dream into something approaching a popular cause.

The heroic narrative in which the miner appeared both as the symbolic victim of capitalism, and as the indomitable survivor, was not peculiar to Britain. Germinal was the great literary original, and the prophetic lines which close the book, a black avenging host preparing to stand up for their rights, the seed-corn of the future ‘slowly germinating in the furrows’, anticipates the epiphany of The Stars Look Down. Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931), one of the first talkies, a narrative built around a terrifying pit explosion in which the rescue teams, recruited from both sides of the Franco-German border, serve as a kind of allegory of human solidarity, was a progenitor; and Hollywood played a big part in putting British ‘social consciousness’ drama on the silver screen (The Citadel, the first of Cronin’s novels to be filmed, was an MGM production of 1938; How Green Was My Valley a Darryl F. Zanuck film of 1941). But there was good reason why this narrative should have a special resonance in Britain. The country owed its manufacturing greatness to steam power and machinery and at the peak of this activity a million men, no fewer than one in ten of the male workforce, were employed in the mines. Then, the coalfields had been the scene of this country’s only epic class-confrontation – the General Strike of 1926, a seven-month Calvary for the miners, a nine-day wonder elsewhere. It was also from the coalfields that the first Hunger Marches had set off. Finally, the frequency and magnitude of pit disasters made the perils of the miner’s life headline news, and lent credence to the charge of ‘blood on the coal’.

In the inter-war years, when so many of Britain’s new industries seemed to dispense with the need for heavy physical labour, and when so many of the older ones, like cotton textiles, fell under the hammer, the miner also came to occupy the symbolic space of Vulcan at the forge. For George Orwell, in his sulphurous account of underground labour, ‘the line of halfnaked kneeling men’ looked as though they had been forged out of iron. Famously, he thrilled to the spectacle of their wide shoulders tapering to splendid supple waists, their ‘small pronounced buttocks’ and sinewy thighs ‘with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere’, their ‘huge’ shovels being driven under the coal ‘with stupendous force and speed’.

The Martyrdom of the Mine was an ancient image, descending from those line drawings of skeletal hurriers which illustrated the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842. Just as strongly archetypal, stemming perhaps from the great Durham lock-out of 1844, was the pithead confrontation of masters and men. The discovery of the coalfield ballads, a phenomenon of the Fifties, and the very basis of the Folk Club movement, powerfully renewed these memories, and cast them in epic form (Arthur Scargill’s first job, when he joined the Barnsley Young Communist League, was to be made ‘Ballads and Blues’ secretary). Aneurin Bevan, a glittering representative of the South Wales coalfield, and the most accomplished orator of his day, made the mining industry a vivid presence in the world of high politics. ‘Unimaginably brave and resilient’, ruthlessly exploited, alternatively seen as a helot and an ‘elemental’, the miner, engaged in ‘the difficult and dangerous job of coal-getting’ was as representative a figure of industrial Britain as the sharecropper of Dust Bowl America, or the peasant of la France profonde. Such images, embedded in the national unconscious, and springing to life in times of crisis, were sufficiently potent to win the miners an astonishing breadth of public support during the national strike of 1972. Harold Macmillan, who as MP for Stockton in the Thirties had referred indignantly to the ‘Passchendaele’ of the South-West Durham coalfield, gave moving expression to these feelings, in his last public speech, when intervening on behalf of the miners during the strike of 1984-5: they never gave up, he said, recalling those who had fought alongside him in the trenches, and speaking of them as though they were still alive. As late as the autumn of 1992, when Middle England rose in revolt against the annihilation of the industry, the miner’s labour was identified so completely with the cause of manufacturing industry that a newly-elected Conservative government found itself in deep trouble with its own supporters when it tried to enforce wholesale closure of the pits.

In recent years, these heroic narratives have been overtaken, or overlain, by a new imaginative complex in which militant masculinity is the villain of the piece and the mining communities have become a relic of patriarchy. Politically they are one of the heartlands of that ‘old Labour’ from which Mr Blair is attempting to extricate his party. Ecologically, they are associated – as in the monstrous, smoke-belching Nowa Huta – with the manufacture of toxic poisons. Broken-backed, since the defeat of the 1984-5 strike, marooned in desolate landscapes, the ex-coalfield communities are seen as the breeding grounds of delinquency and drug abuse, attracting notice through murder cases rather than strikes. Beatrix Campbell, in Wigan Pier Revisited, a book published on the very eve of the 1984-5 strike, presciently rehearsed some of these themes, arguing that the famed militancy of the miners was premised on the exploitation of women. She has amplified and generalised the argument in subsequent writings. A refusal to mourn the passing of the pits in Ashington, Northumberland fairly represents her distinctive voice:

Ashington man was the archetypal proletarian, the arehetypal patriarch ... As in the Army and the Stock Exchange, men’s companionship did not produce social cohesion; if fostered power and privilege for men within their own class and community ... No day matched Sunday for desolation. Up with the children, the woman kept them quiet while the man had his lie-in, made the dinner while he sank a skinful at the pub, kept the kids quiet while he slept it off, made the tea, put the kids to bed while he ended the day down the club ... Miners’ clubs along the north-east coast were the cathedrals of their communities, the space where men had their pleasure and their politics. Their homes, however, remained some of the worst in Britain.

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