Occupy the Tollgates: the Rebecca riots as myth, meme and movement

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Originally written for Wales Arts Review 13.11.15

Part of the pleasure of studying history is its ability to throw as much light on the present as the past. Long-term perspectives can make the short-term easier to understand. For me, having an interest in history was a function of growing up in a place which often seemed to consist, as the poet observed, of nothing but the past. History in Wales is not so much submerged as sedimentary, with much of it seeming to commemorate only struggle, failure, loss, and things which might have been. In school and out of it, I learnt about the Valleys’ radical tradition: the Scotch Cattle’s nascent trade union agitation, the raising of a red flag in the 1831 Merthyr Rising, and Welsh Chartism’s mass drive for popular democracy and parliamentary reform. Intrinsically tied to the progress of industrial capitalism, the grand narrative of the south Welsh coalfield presented instance after instance of the clash between workers trying to improve their conditions and local employers and authorities. In this context, things like the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, which still casts its shadow over post-industrial parts of the country, slotted more comprehensibly into place. The history of my part of Wales, it seemed, was full of conflict, resistance, opposition – and, apparently, inevitable defeat. While this knowledge helped me to make historical and political sense of myself and my surroundings, it became at the same time a source of fatalism and of pique. However inspiring and heroic figures like the Merthyr Rising’s Lewsyn yr Heliwr or the Chartist leader John Frost seemed to me, they were also undeniably tragedies, martyrs, their stories bleak and their endings unhappy.

When I looked at the gloomy chronicles of Welsh protest, its single bright spot seemed to originate further afield, not from my own bleak and militant south-east coal and iron belt but from the country’s apparently placid south-west muzzle of Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. The 1840s agricultural unrest known as the Rebecca riots is remembered as having been an unqualified success and, most famously, as having been carried out on horseback at night by men dressed, for some reason, like our grandmothers. The Rebecca riots capture the retrospective imagination, much as they did at the time, by their colourful and spectacular qualities – not least the fantastical images of stout Welsh farmers sporting bonnets and petticoats – and by their appearing to be a textbook example of righteous community uprising against unfair financial penalties, a bit like a nineteenth-century incarnation of the Poll Tax Riots. I spent a chunk of my postgraduate years examining how true this impression was, and discovered a complex but still inspiring picture. Having maintained my interest in the Rebecca movement through years of incremental independent study. I now find myself in the vaguely surreal position of bringing out my own book on it.

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Rebeccaism, then: what happened, and why? For south-west Wales, the early 1840s were years of population growth, increasing poverty and unemployment, and deepening social and economic division between landowning gentry and their tenant-farmers and labourers. The latter group, facing a fall in income due to bad harvests and low prices for their produce, saw no such fall in the money they had to spend, as church tithes and poor rates remained constant or increased and landlords refused to lower their rents. This material pressure intersected with a developing sense of cultural conflict between largely Welsh-speaking, chapel-going tenants and Anglicised, Church-going landowners. Additionally, the effects of the 1834 New Poor Law were also restricting the support that poverty-stricken individuals could expect from their local authorities. Those asking for help risked being committed to one of the multiplying number of workhouses, in which families were separated and conditions frequently made deliberately harsh in order to discourage applicants from seeking further relief. In 1843, the Welshman newspaper described the region’s rising sense of economic and social crisis: Continue reading

On Enemies Within: growing up with the Miners’ Strike in memory, myth and history

Faced with possible Parliamentary destruction of all that is good and compassionate in our society, extra-parliamentary action will be the only course open to the working class and the Labour movement.”

– Arthur Scargill, 1983

“We’re secure in the knowledge that we already lost a long time ago.”

– Richey James, 1992

I knew the death of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t likely to usher in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Eighties, but it’s been good to see the thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike pass this year and last with due commemoration, and with little attempt to present what happened as a good thing.*

A few months ago I went to a screening of Still The Enemy Within.** This documentary does a fine job of detailing the strike’s background and bringing the experience of the strike to life. Generally I avoid (resist?) revisiting the strike in quite such unflinching detail, because – and apologies if this sounds hyperbolic; it isn’t – I find doing so almost debilitating, as though nothing else matters outside of emphasising how permanently shattering its results have been for a huge part of this country. The depth of feeling can be such that you want to back away from the edge. At this stage, at this distance, all one can do is bear witness. All one can do is testify.

(Every time I try to write about the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath, the exercise turns out to be merely a scraping at the surface, an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the heart of the matter. It’s a gradual stripping away of layers, on my part, of bravado and defensiveness and fatalism. This post won’t be definitive either. I want to do the thing justice, to give it adequate weight, and I know I can’t, so this will have to do. For the purposes of this piece, in any case, the strike is less of a conclusion and more of a jumping-off point.)

In its uncompromising commitment to telling a bleak and unrelenting story, Still The Enemy Within is a necessary supplement to something like Pride. The strike deserves to be remembered in the latter’s upbeat and uplifting terms of solidarity, sure, but equally what deserves remembering is that there were no happy endings, nothing of what we learned in the Nineties to call emotional closure. (Hoho, the only things that got closure in the Nineties were more of the pits.) There are wider questions here about what counts as history, and whether history must be necessarily cool-headed and objective, not relieved by colour or comedy or complicated by messy, judgement-clouding emotion. But the tangle of story and history surrounding the strike suggests that the event and what it stood for are not “just” history yet. Like Hillsborough in 1989, Brixton in 1985, Toxteth in 1981, the Miners’ Strike is a flashpoint that unforgivingly illuminates its era. That Eighties hot war of government against people still hasn’t cooled.

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You may imagine how exceptionally bored I was as a post-industrial Nineties teenager. (I mean, I couldn’t even join a brass band.) Growing up, before I ever knew I wanted to be a historian, I wanted to understand history – both its grand outlines and its bathetic, personal confines in which I knew my community to be stuck. How did we get here, and why? Growing up I felt stymied and stifled by history, and had the consequent compulsion to dig beneath the surface for the story. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish? Continue reading

A request to Manics fans out there

This year I’ll be writing a book on Manics album The Holy Bible, along with Larissa Wodtke and Daniel Lukes. My section will focus on the album’s social and political context ie Britain in the 90s, the album’s appeal to teenagers, and reasons why the band had such a huge female fanbase.

As part of researching this book, I’d find it helpful to speak to other fans of the band about the album – both those who, like myself, grew up with the Manics in the 90s, and those who discovered them later. (If you’re interested in what I’ve written previously on the band, most of it is here.)

If you’d be willing to tell me a bit about your experience as a Manics fan, please reply to this post with a contact email or, if you prefer, contact me yourself on theholybibletriptych@gmail.com. Thank you!

Plus ça change

“At some meeting about that time of statesmen – in Paris or Geneva – a French black-and-white artist said to me ‘I am by profession a caricaturist, but here photography suffices’. It struck me as poignantly true then, and has often so struck me since. Reality goes bounding past the satirist like a cheetah laughing as it lopes ahead of the greyhound.”

– Claud Cockburn, c.1939.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/dec/19/new-era-residents-celebrate-charity-buys-estate-investor

Obviously I’m pleased for the residents of New Era estate that this has happened, but it’s unsettling to see yet another instance of socio-economic injustice resolved by the intervention of what is essentially paternalist philanthropy. As if politicians are wholly powerless to impose a rent cap on landlords or to commission the building of affordable housing, rather than just being disinclined to do so. See also food banks run by charities and churches as a response to impoverishment, rather than eg a living wage.

Still, Merry Christmas, eh.

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“Pride”, identity and intersectionality

An extended version of what I wrote for the New Welsh Review.

From a certain angle of rose-tinted retrospect, Britain in the 1980s is a storyteller’s dream. In the past few decades, British films like Billy Elliott, Brassed Off and The Full Monty have presented the era as one of struggle and defeat for the British working class, with Margaret Thatcher as a grotesque presiding nightmare. Counter-accounts of Thatcher’s rise — notably 2012’s The Iron Lady — have revolved around the victory of the country’s first female Prime Minister over a male-chauvinist political establishment and the macho thuggery of Britain’s trade unions. There has been less cultural coverage of the stories that unfolded in the margins of this grand narrative. Matthew Warchus’s film Pride is distinctive initially for its focus on those at the frequently forgotten intersection of 1980s conflict.

For audiences outside the UK, and even some within it, the details of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 are unknown or hazy at best. The ideological clash between the Thatcher government and the National Union of Mineworkers became a titanic struggle for the survival of the British coal industry, played out in mining communities up and down the country in a year long strike. Against the NUM, the Thatcher government deployed an unprecedented degree of police violence, media bias and state surveillance, the extent of which is only recently coming to light. Popular support for the strikers, meanwhile, was generated both by instinctive anti-Tory sentiment and an awareness that the miners were the front line of resistance to a right-wing assault on the economic, political and social fabric of Britain. If the miners were beaten, then sooner or later little of the postwar welfare settlement would be left intact. That they were beaten, and that NUM leader Arthur Scargill’s jeremiads on the triumph of neoliberalism have indeed come to pass, is part of why the strike retains its peculiar status as a cultural and political touchstone in Britain, and why it still has the ability to provoke powerful and frequently bitter reactions both for and against.

If considered purely in terms of popular resistance to neoliberalism’s shock-troops, Pride could be dismissed for pulling its punches, since it shows little of the high political stakes invested in the outcome of the strike or the police occupation, brutality, and harassment to which mining communities were subject. But this is not quite the task it sets for itself. Directed by Matthew Warchus and scripted by Steven Beresford, Pride tells the story of the London-based activist group Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners, and their encounters with a group of striking miners from the Welsh coalfield. It’s a true story, though you’d be forgiven for remaining unaware of this until the closing credits, and, like many depictions of the 80s, its dramatic narrative seems almost too good to be true. The strike itself becomes a backdrop to the staple fare of feel-good film: gently comical culture-clashes, personal journeys and gently triumphant coming together in the face of adversity. Where Pride manages to be more than the sum of its parts, however, and where it becomes a particularly useful intervention into contemporary debates, is in its unabashedly political edge.

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In advance of the Manics’ anniversary tour of The Holy Bible, the Cardiff production company Barefoot Rascals is making a short documentary on the album’s history and its impact on fans, involving interviews with Simon Price, myself and others. To get the film produced, we are asking for funding on Kickstarter – please donate a couple of quid here if you can. We are halfway to meeting the funding target so far.

Below is a guest post and pictures by former music photographer Lorna Cort, who remembers the original album tour in 1994 and whose pictures will be used in the documentary.

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The Manic Street Preachers were my life. After discovering Stay Beautiful in the Summer of 1991 I’d followed tours, collected just about everything, written too many letters to James, learned to play guitar ( a white Gibson Les Paul obviously!) and helped form the band of fellow Manics fans ‘Dead End Dolls’.

By 1994, I bought a camera and decided I was going to be a music photographer. I can’t remember who gave me a photo pass for Portsmouth Guildhall on 12th October but thank you, I have treasured the results. Back in the olden days of film and developing at Boots, I had no idea how the photos would turn out. As well as manual focus I had to contend with stage divers flying overhead, security guards taking up all the room in the photo pit, and the deafening sound of a thousand screaming fans 2 feet behind me and the flimsy barrier! The gig was over in a flash, I remember James raised his eyebrows ‘hello’ at me, the white sailor suit looked amazing under the lights, the sound was incredible, I wanted to sing along but no, I was a photographer… I couldn’t look like I was actually enjoying myself!

The Holy Bible was a challenge to listen to, it was at times uncomfortable, shocking, it was emotional… and it was perfect. When I look at my photos 20 years later I see the concentration on James’ face, the determination to get all the words out, Nick’s anonymity, head down with a nose-skimming fringe, and I see how painfully skinny Richey’s arms look, and that he has the word ‘LOVE’ written in black marker on his fingers. They were so beautiful, so focused.

I wanted to be part of The Holy Bible – My Testament to share my photos with old fans and new, to celebrate one of the most amazing records ever created and to remember the excitement and love I had for this band. To paraphrase Nick – they remain the most intelligent people I ever met in my life. I so hope this project goes ahead and maybe brings the Holy Bible to new listeners. Thank you.

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