In 1984 I was twenty-two and having a nervous breakdown. I had taken an English A Level (which I failed) and I remember the question of whether Hamlet was mad or not really fucking me up. Turns out the madness rubbed off on me for a time. Hospitalised with short-term psychosis (thankfully) the faces in newspapers would be staring at me; there were men in the corner watching me; the doctors seemed extra-terrestrial. One day, when supposedly in recovery, I sat in the TV room trying to catch some kind of normality but happened upon the news and the heightened social realism of men standing in a dusty field being charged at by the riot police. I started hyper-ventilating, feeling like I was going to pass out, then the belief that something worse was about to happen. The fighting continued but no-one would turn the TV off. Finally, a nurse entered the room (which was in fact empty), made the fighting go away and helped me back to bed. The miners’ strike, in this instance the Battle of Orgreave, had induced a panic attack.
Such battles are what remain of the history of the miners’ strike, and in the case of Orgreave, justice has still not been done. However, the lives of people affected by the strike, not just the miners, has taken some time to be told.
Jane Burn’s beautifully detailed poem, Gala Day, Durham Miners, depicts a day in the near past. “At eight-fifteen, the band stands up in regimented lines. /July, before the schools break – the morning lull broken /by the stray parp of tuning notes, loud and sudden /through nets ghosting open windows.” This is a day of excitement, of defiance; a day of celebration even for the community, to let bygones be bygones. “Dorothy – bitched about me once, with them at thirty-one,/but if I cannot forgive her that, what use as a person am I?/Her Arthur, taken by cancer in less than a year.”
This community’s history still shows a stain of the past, when the adults were kids during the miner’s strike. “The Dearne Valley villages – always the backdrop /of pit-heads, men in donkey jackets, orange panels bright among /allotment leeks.” But on this gala day, there is a more tragic story for this community to remember, one they can never wash from their minds, as they follow the band. “The drummer strikes the skin /of the bass drum. A sonic boom, as if Gabriel himself is smiting /the roofs of our estate. The troop moves down the hill – people, /magnetised like iron filings follow the flag.” The miners’ strike of 1984 is the tombstone for many people in the UK during the Thatcher era, and it had the message that nothing will be the same again. But elegiac poems such as this help us to never forget.
Jane Burn is a North East based poet who was originally born in South Yorkshire. Her work has been published in many magazines including The Black Light Engine Room, Butcher’s Dog and Obsessed With Pipework and will soon appear in The Rialto. Her poems have been included in anthologies from The Emma Press and Kind Of A Hurricane Press and her first pamphlet, Fat Around The Middle was published in 2015 by Talking Pen. She recently established the online magazine, The Fat Damsel.
Gala Day, Durham Miners is part of her pamphlet, Fat Around The Middle. Available from:
fAt aRouNd tHe MiddLe by Jane Burn
ISBN 978-0-9524155-8-9 £5.00 plus £1.50 postage
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Gala Day, Durham Miners
At eight-fifteen, the band stands up in regimented lines.
July, before the schools break – the morning lull broken
by the stray parp of tuning notes, loud and sudden
through nets ghosting open windows. It’s a signal
to get up, throw cardigans over nighties, join the exodus
of neighbours slopping feet in slippers, scratching bed hair.
Slovenliness forgiven, this once – right now it means more
to be outside, listening to them play.
Dorothy – bitched about me once, with them at thirty-one,
but if I cannot forgive her that, what use as a person am I?
Her Arthur, taken by cancer in less than a year. Marie, last
of three sisters; a street full of women outliving their men.
Sleepy-eyed kids, hurried out of their beds to hear the opening
bars of Abide With Me, see The Banner, tassels of gold and red;
For The People By The People. Your history, I tell my sons.
Your village, see? This is why we don’t forget.
We were children when we lived through the last of the mines.
Thatcher – strikes, scabs, picket lines; Arthur Scargill
in Barnsley. The Dearne Valley villages – always the backdrop
of pit-heads, men in donkey jackets, orange panels bright among
allotment leeks. The scent of sparking fires – the sharp, oily smell;
powder, staining everything it touched – grimy on the coal man’s
hessian skin, sooting the sacks on his flat-bed truck. Dad, quitting
before it got too late, did not want the blackness settling on his lungs.
Wath Main, Wombwell, Hickleton, Manvers – given to nature now,
flat under birds. Nineteen eighty-four. The corridors of our local comp
overrun with cameras from the BBC – kids sticking two fingers up
for the telly. Tracy, from my year at school is missing and so are
her brothers; Darren and Paul have been killed, while scavenging
for slack on Goldthorpe coal-tips. The funeral – playing the schools
dented brass, my tongue dried up on the mouthpiece, metallic
with tears and tin. Brothers don’t die – they do not die beneath
embankments of smother and soot before they are sixteen, bursting
their lungs under slag; their fathers fingers digging through the scree,
nails split, skin torn. Blood and choke. The drummer strikes the skin
of the bass drum. A sonic boom, as if Gabriel himself is smiting
the roofs of our estate. The troop moves down the hill – people,
magnetised like iron filings follow the flag; dwindling to a last
earful of airborne notes, clear as crystal tears. Left behind,
we swallow the thick in our throats; faces lit by zealot’s blaze.
There is nothing left. Stranded here and there a winding mechanism;
giant upturned bogie wheels framed against the sky. Beamish tunnel
to gawp at – to remind us of kiddies pulling up half-ton coal tubs
in the dark; their lives lit by the whim of a candles flame.