Having been wrong about the Brexit vote, and then wrong about Trump, I went into last week’s election with a sense of optimism that I knew full well verged on the perverse. I’m now trying to sort out what I based that optimism on, so here are some disjointed thoughts. Continue reading
One of the interesting moments – I wouldn’t call it a highlight – of Wednesday’s debate was when Nuttall threw the “taking us back to the Seventies” canard at Corbyn and a large part of the audience responded with immediate vocal contempt. I don’t know if it was simply a recognition of that line as part of lazy and condescending scaremongering – see also “magic money tree” and Amber Rudd’s bizarre idea of what a game of Monopoly entails – or if it means the recent questioning and debunking of several myths of “the Seventies” are gaining traction, or if the audience was just young enough that the Seventies mean little to them, or if we’re at a point where the changes in geopolitical context since “the Seventies” are so glaring as to render such a reference to them absurd.
“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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
1. For my next trick in the arena of niche overthinking-it monographs, I am going to be writing a book on the Rebecca riots. There have already been magisterial studies of the movement which have focused on its political and economic aspects, but I am going to look at its social and cultural aspects, and the ways in which it had more variety, more politics, and more of Old Weird Wales than is generally acknowledged.
To include: why there was a bit more to the movement than hill-farmers smashing up tollgates in bonnets, petticoats and false beards; the nature of Welsh resistance to early industrial capitalism (as touched on in this post); contemporary ideas of gender and the early Victorian undermining of female social and sexual agency; how Rebecca’s image became a national ‘idiom of defiance’ – basically, a meme – and wider issues hopefully relevant to today, eg “rough” versus “respectable” protest; the traditions of masked and anonymous protesting; and how popular culture can be integrated into popular resistance.
Don’t worry, I’m fully aware that this book will be of interest to about four people at a push.
2. The last time I was in the House of Commons in any official capacity, I was taking students to lobby against the introduction of top-up fees. Our side having narrowly lost that vote, I then got massively drunk in the ULU bar, decided to give up student politics as a mug’s game, ranted at a Sky News crew and eventually had to be carried out to a taxi by members of my delegation.