The 1984 miners’ strike here in the UK, had a huge social and political impact, and was indicative of a wider global shift towards the protection of big business to the detriment of working class people. I knew therefore a number of poems would cover this important moment in history as well as that of mining more generally. However, I have been surprised at the different angles poets have taken.
There was Paul Summer’s satirical North, “we are more than sharply contrasting photographs/of massive ships and staithes for coal, more than/crackling films where grimy faced workers are/dwarfed by shadows or omitted by chimneys.” Jo Bell’s Mute of brass bands: “A ringing out, a clocking on, a moan/of disappointment sure as klezmer;/pit music, factory music, punching out precisely,” and Jane Burns Gala Day, Durham Miners, with “ The Dearne Valley villages – always the backdrop/of pit-heads, men in donkey jackets, orange panels bright among/allotment leeks.” Both looked at the social side of the miners’ lives and their communities. In Seams, Kay Buckley juxtaposed dress making with mining, “those seams that/he picketed and you sewed,” and Paul Batchelor in To a Halver, took a more symbolic angle, “O half brick: your battened-down/century of faithful service in a pit village terrace/forgotten now you’ve broken loose.” Finally, Richard Skinner’s Dark Nook took us further back in time to the working conditions of the lead mines of the Isle of Man, “It takes two hours to descend the ladders,/our tallow candles round our necks/like white asparagus.”
The harshness and anger this gives you when reading these poems, like the mine, lies under the surface. But in Des Mannay’s “And the Dead Shall Rise,” there is no such holding back, when talking about such disasters as Gresford, “And what price did you pay for the silence?/The ultimate price: 266 men sent to the grave… the damps, the gases, suffocated you/You were betrayed – murdered – by your bosses.” These men are no longer able to rest in peace as there is a new threat, with a new search for energy in the ground in which they lie. “They want to desecrate your graves boys/They want to rip the poison gas from your lungs for profit.” This is Fracking and is now being rolled out across a number of countries, especially in the United States where they hope it will reduce their dependence on foreign oil. (more…)