Friday, November 26, 2004

Is it worth it?

I was talking to my Dad the other day about this funeral that he went to. He knew the man concerned. He was affected by the Miners Strike years after it finished - his life ended because of it.

During the '84 Miners Strike we lived in a little village called Stanton Hill, right in the middle of the Nottinghamshire coalfield, in between 2 mines. I could see both from my bedroom window. Silverhill Colliery (where my Dad worked) was about a mile or so away to the right and Sutton Colliery (Brierley) was probably 400 yards away to the left. They've both been filled in now and replaced with country parks. But the decorative headstocks are nice.

It's difficult really to say how it affected me as I was so young, but I can document the things that happened. Although the details are very sketchy.

Stanton Hill was a mining village, built specifically for the miners. Although the village wasn't exclusively full of miners there were a fair proportion in the area. In my 11/12 year old mini world of a street and a bit there was only my Dad on strike, and a bloke we knew as Tigger. My Dad was a big Labour Party man and a big union man, he was always sorting out problems for people, often at the expense of his family life. He was the NUM Branch Secretary at Silverhill colliery.

I never recall a time where my Dad came home and said 'right, we're on strike', although I guess it was discussed in the house and a decision was taken. The first thing I remember was being woken one night in bed by a loud roar, very similar to a football crowd roar. I went to the window and I could make out to the left, in the vicinity of Sutton Colliery a red glow in the sky and the silhouettes of people. I got dressed and climbed out of the bedroom window and went to have a look.

There were hundreds of people and lots of police, the people were trying to stop the cars and lorries passing - the red glow was the braziers (a fire in a dustbin) against the night sky. I recognised a couple of my dads friends and went to speak to them. They told me that they were picketing, trying to stop people going to work and that I ought to go home before I got hurt. But I was hooked, the atmosphere and adrenaline was just like being right in the middle of a noisy football crowd. I never felt in any danger. I asked to be taken, and was taken on lots of picket trips after that.

I ran home and told my Mum but she just told me not to do it again and go to bed. From then on I was hooked on anything to do with the strike. In my 11/12 year old world I gathered that the government wanted to shut all the pits down and the miners on strike were trying to stop them. I couldn't understand why everybody wasn't striking about it and that some people would work (you don't understand the value of money so young).

From then on it was pretty much the strike all the time as far as I can remember, it changed our lives.

We had a strike centre about a 2 mile walk from home where groups of miners wives would look after all the striking miners, feed them, etc. I can remember visiting the strike centre every day with my brother and my dad whilst my Mum worked, it seemed like I went there every day but it could only have been in the summer holidays, we were fed and played cards with the other striking miners. I had free school meals at school. I guess I missed out on a lot of things too but I cant remember what.

I had quite a bunch of friends around our little area before the strike, and I distinctly remember one day going to call for my friend. He answered the door and said he wasn't coming out, then I heard his Dad shout from the house:

"if it's that Watski boy tell him to go away, we don't want him round here"

I cant remember it affecting me but I guess it did, from then on there were only a few kids that would be seen in my company, I was spat on a couple of times too. But again, I can't remember it affecting me that much. I also remember people waving money at my Mum as though to goad her, or people talking loudly about things they could afford as soon as we walked anywhere near them.

I used to go to school and hand 'NUM strike' stickers out to all the teachers and stick them on all the bus stops, I collected pin badges (miners have something about pin badges - dont ask me why) and had a hat full of strike badges.

I also remember the BBC sending a news crew down our street and being slapped in the face by a policeman for getting too close. We also believed that our phone was tapped. Although I was more worried that they'd catch me whispering adolescent sweet nothings to whoever girl was fortunate to be with Watski at the time.

I remember going to miners rallies across the country, and because we were from Nottinghamshire everybody wanted to hug us and give us money - we went to Edinburgh and stayed with a Scottish mining family, we went to Durham and stayed with a Geordie mining family and me and my brother even spent a week in Kent at the house of a Kent mining family - all miners on strike, all doing things for their fellow strikers. The thing that hit me was that people couldn't do enough for each other, they really, really couldn't do enough.

I remember being on that miners rally in Durham, narching behind the colliery banner and because Nottinghamshire was the main area that broke the strike there weren't that many marching behind our NUM banner, there were loads for everywhere else. But when we marched all the crowd cheered twice as loud for us and were throwing money to us. One woman ran out of the crowd and up to me with tears in her eyes, I don't remember what she said but I remember her putting some money in my pocket.

Because I believed that what my Dad was doing was so right I used to run home from school everyday and switch the news on fully expecting the headline to be that the Miners had won. But it never came. For years I couldn't believe that anybody could be so stupid as to work - how could they be so short sighted. But now I realise that those people who worked believed in what they were doing just as much as my Dad did.

Looking back, it seemt that I had it very easy, I got free school dinners, the family got free food parcels, a free holiday for me and my brother, probably more than the families of working miners got, but that was all down to the generosity and togetherness of other people, locally and across the country. I'm guessing that it was real struggle for my parents living on the wages of my Mum, and I guess it was even harder for the people who didn't even have the wages of another person.

It changed everything though, my Dad left the industry a few years later. I guess there were divisions down the pit, there are divisions today. Lots of people I know are connected to mining and I know whether they worked or not, not because it matters, just because I'm interested. My Mum and Dad seperated a few years after and my Dad has been in and out of jobs ever since, never settling on one thing.

But it was the best thing that happened to some men as it forced them into something else rather than having the security of a job for life down the pit. The pits
all closed down soon after the strike, there was enough coal in them to employ all the miners to dig it out but it was just too expensive to do it. Coal was being imported into the UK from other countries at a vastly subsidised price and the government wouldn't subsidise the cost of UK coal so all the power stations bought the cheaper imported coal. The mines closed rapidly after that.

I guess it shaped me though, I'm so fiercely proud of the time when my Dad was on strike and I well up with pride whenever I hear it mentioned. I'm so proud of everything to do with miners and the strike and I'm proud that my Dad stuck to his principles - I'm not sure I could have done the same.

The community was the major thing that changed though, when the mines closed and the miners moved out to find jobs elsewhere the properties ended up being bought fairly cheaply by property developers who would rent them out to anyone and everyone, problem families moved in, there were bail hostels, and drugs came to the village, my car was broken into a couple of times in a year. Look at other mining villages and you'll see very similar scenes.

Stanton Hill wasn't much of a village before the strike, and I might look back on it a little too romantically, but at least you knew where you were, it was a community and most people looked out for each other.  But now it's effectively a ghost town, full of different people trudging from one day to another. It's almost closed down.