The following excerpts are taken from the autobiographical novel BACK IN 1984
(1) DAWN POLICE WATCH AT PICKET LINE – NOVEMBER 1984
We dressed, downed coffee and with the sky still dark headed off to fetch a fellow watcher – a member of the Militant Tendency – from the Hyde Park estate. She was waiting when we arrived, her breath visible in the cold air. She climbed in and we raced on to a colliery in Kilnhurst.
We entered a tiny NUM office. Burly miners smoked cigarettes without filters and supped pint pots of tea. They eyed up the women, checked out their bodies and then said ‘Hello’ – or so it seemed to me, a man immersed in the battle of the sexes, unversed in the battle for jobs. The Militant woman had told of picketing miners shouting ‘Show us your tits!’ at Police Watch women, of cops telling dirty jokes in loud voices to ‘tease the ladies’. So squeezed like a sardine into this male den, I felt doubly nervous: for the women exposed to potentially sexist miners and for myself – a man scared of big tough men, especially big tough working-class men. But Mary seemed unconcerned. So I hid behind her, smiled and talked about the weather.
We were instructed to follow a miner’s car. It drove off at speed through the misty dawn light of a surreal South Yorkshire countryside: autumnal woodlands, desolate slag heaps, babbling brooks and decaying factories. We screeched to a halt in a village called Toddy, where miners had congregated to divert police from another pit. They seemed cheerful, cracking jokes and singing songs. Then six armoured transits sped past – blue lights flashing, sirens sounding – and the mood changed. The vans formed a line at one end of the street. The men linked arms. I felt nervous. Suppose riot police emerged and gave chase? Beating us with batons like they did on television? Would the girls save me?
No time to find out as we crammed back into the car, decoy duty done, and headed on to Kiveton – a pit where the Coal Board was bussing in scab labour on a daily basis. Police were everywhere, hemming in villagers on the High Street or herding them like sheep into sealed side streets. Outside one pub we counted thirteen police vans with thirteen policemen in each van – a military occupation in all but name. We walked to the first gate and found police and pickets coexisting in relative harmony.
“South Yorkshire boys are all right,” explained the Militant woman, pointing her zoom lens down the line of blue. “It’s the Met you have to watch.”
We hurried on. Near the second gate Mary broke into a run.
“The horses are out!” she shouted over her shoulder.
I glanced down to my left, towards the grey mass of the pit and saw lines of policemen on horseback moving in formation towards the second gate. On top of a slagheap overlooking the scene two outriders stood silhouetted against the sky.
“John Wayne and bloody Tonto up there,” said a grey-haired man with coal-stained skin, happily mixing screen genres as he pointed at the apocalyptic horsemen.
We reached the gate too late. Twenty working miners had been brought out and the pickets were trudging back with mounted police behind – batons raised, visors down.
“Any trouble bringing scabs out?” Mary asked a passing miner.
Funny to hear her middle-class voice say ‘scab’, but the miner answered in a friendly manner.
“No trouble, love. Didn’t set horses on us this time.”
Rain began to fall and as the column tramped past us up the hill we turned and walked with it. I wondered how the strikers kept this up – day after day, week after week, month after month. People here had not been paid for eight months and most families were on relief food. Yet there was still determination, still the will to win. One woman misunderstood our badges and shouted abuse, until a friend explained what Police Watch meant. They must be bitter. Jobs threatened, villages occupied day and night.
I thought of the tiny bronze miner’s lamp that the striking Nottinghamshire miners had sent me, a token of gratitude for my donation. I wished I could go on giving, wished my private means could multiply and turn the tide. And as the marching pickets and watching wives began to sing, the picture of a community on the edge of physical defeat changed to an image of a moral victory that would last for ever.
(2) SUNDAY FUND RAISING CONCERT FOR MINERS AT SHEFFIELD CITY HALL (EVENSONG FOR SOCIALISTS) – DECEMBER 1984
Alice rang and insisted we go to the Labour party’s fund raising event. She had bought enough food for us all to take something: Shredded Wheat packets for me, tins of baked beans for Mary, dog food for herself.
The dog food led to raised eyebrows amongst collectors standing with supermarket trolleys at the entrance to City Hall, but who cared – miners have dogs too. Alice’s twelve-year old son Ken wanted to sit in the gallery, so we climbed the stairs and found seats at the front. Down below bag after bag was being unloaded from trolleys and stacked across the front of the stage. Cans of this, cans of that, boxes and cartons, bags and bottles – like some unordered supermarket shelf or first prize in a Win a Year’s Groceries competition. I stared at the scene and felt my melancholy shift to sadness. I sensed the hopelessness of the miners’ situation – fighting impossible odds, dependent on haphazard donations. I knew that others in the audience felt the same and that belief in victory was fading. The first speaker could not lift the mood and the first act – a depressed and depressing folk singer from Rotherham – made matters worse. Spirits rose briefly when Stan Orme, the shadow minister of energy, appeared, but sunk back when party leader Neil Kinnock – who has refused to attend rallies or publicly back the strike – was mentioned.
Then the tide turned. David Blunkett, the blind leader of Sheffield City Council, was guided on to the stage with his dog Ted. Once in position he thundered like a Baptist minister – rallying the congregation, deriding the Tories, defending the right to strike and the right to liberty. Law and order, he pointed out to loud applause, was available in dictatorships throughout the world, liberty a less common commodity. I leant forward on a brass handrail that ran along the parapet in front of our seats. The decorated roof of the city hall with its glass petals and tarnished metal strips seemed less oppressive and pompous now; it began to represent past struggles, past victories, hope for the future. The mood of the meeting lifted. Roy Bailey sang a song about the Diggers, its words and music placing us in history – this meeting, this strike, all part of a long tradition of struggle against oppression and exploitation. My eyes lit up. I clapped. The gap left by loss of religion filled with new faith. Evensong for socialists, the struggle praised and honoured, the glorification of God and death replaced by the fight for human dignity and life.
Two miners read from a book of poems written by strikers: one about a scab injured down the pit and rescued by his striking workmates; one about the picket killed by a coal lorry at the start of the strike. Next a representative of the Women’s Support Group spoke: women were fully involved in the strike, she said, no wives to be pictured by the papers taunting their husbands back to work. She was on stage for less than two minutes, but received a standing ovation. Then local M.P, Richard Caborn, held an auction-in-reverse for donations: cheques for five thousand pounds, cheques for a thousand pounds, cheques for five hundred and so on, down to one-pound notes and coppers:
“Shadwell Steelworks, five thousand pounds!” – enormous cheers.
“Sheffield Asian Community, seventy five pounds!” – more cheers as a shy looking Asian man stood up and bowed.
I pushed ten pounds into a collecting can, not daring to descend to the stage where others were pressing money into the hands of waiting miners. Mary tried to persuade Alice’s son Ken to run down with a pound note, but he was too shy. The money flooded in, the sense of solidarity grew. We were together, supporters and supported, all playing our part. The final speaker was from the NUM in Durham and in a high-pitched staccato voice and broad Geordie accent – ‘I hope you can understand me dialect’ – he laid into all and sundry with biting humour and settled the problem of Neil Kinnock once and for all: ‘If he don’t want to come, we can do without him.’ Loud cheers. ‘It’s rank and file of Labour Party that matters. They’re ones supporting us. They’re ones to thank.’ Louder cheers.
Swept up by the emotion of the speech, I glanced across at Mary. I was so proud of her. She was in the Labour party out every Saturday collecting, up at all hours on Police Watch. She was rank and file and she mattered. She turned and smiled, happy that I was enthusiastic too – both of us removed from melancholy and certain of our selves.
(3) VISIT TO A MINERS STRIKE COMMITTEE SOUP KITCHEN AND COMMUNITY CENTRE – JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS, 1984
Yesterday I visited a soup kitchen near Wakefield. Barry, the official in charge, welcomed me in and introduced the dinner ladies. I felt uneasy and when a plate of food arrived on the counter in front of me, I assumed it was for the miner behind. I stepped aside.
“For you, love,” said one of the women. “We’ve kept it hot.”
I took the plate – piled high with potato, peas and steak and kidney pie – and sat down. Two miners ate in silence beside me.
“You’ve got it well organised,” I said.
“Aye,” said the younger one.
“I’m in the ACTT,” I added by way of introduction. “The film union.”
“You can put me in film and all,” said the older one. “I’d tell ’em a thing or two.”
I had arrived late and the dinner session was almost over. The five women finished serving up, sat down and ate together at a table by the door. They asked if the food was all right. I nodded and tried to think of a suitable compliment. But before I could speak, Barry joined me and lit up a cigarette.
“We’re grateful for what you’ve done, Joe.”
I didn’t know I’d done anything, but nodded.
“Union rep brought over five hundred pounds last week – presented it to ladies.”
That would be Dave Hampden, Rachel’s boyfriend, one step ahead of me as usual. It must have been the money he collected with the ACTT’s round robin letter.
“It’s good of you to come. We very much appreciate these visits.”
The two miners drained their mugs and left. I finished my steak and kidney pie. A bowl of sponge pudding arrived.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Please yourself,” said the woman who had brought it.
“Can’t eat sugar, you see.”
“Don’t worry, love. There’s plenty what’ll eat that tomorrow..”
Barry offered me a cigarette and explained how they ran the canteen. It was open three days a week for miners and wives, but not for the children who got a meal at school.
“Most food comes from cash and carry – rest from union. Here, I’ll show you.”
Barry led me out of the canteen and into a room with a battered billiard table. He pulled open a warped hardboard door to reveal a jumble of pre-packed foods: pasta from unions in Italy, dried milk from France, coffee beans from Belgium.
“Don’t have much use for them,” Barry said lifting up a bag of beans. “People don’t know what to do with ’em.”
“I could get them ground for you,” I said thinking of all the lefties with cappuccino machines and state of the art electric grinders.
“Can’t do much with these either.”
He handed me a can with a faded yellow wrapper. I recognised it from Berlin: tinned meat from Russia with a drawing on the side that might have been a chicken.
“Chicken?” I said.
“Not when you smell it. I mean we’re grateful to Soviets and that, but I can’t give people stuff when I don’t know what it is. They won’t take it.”
“Where do you get your meat then?” I asked.
“Local butcher’s good with scraps. But mostly out of tins. Bread we get from Lyons in Wakefield – leftovers at end of day. Union there’s helped organise that.”
“And what about food for people at home?”
“I do food parcels. That’s in t’other store though.”
He closed the cupboard door and led me back through the canteen. The women were busy clearing the tables and washing up.
“Skiving off are we, Barry?”
“Just showing Joe what’s what,” said Barry.
“I normally do washing up, you see,” he added, turning to me.
We walked across the school yard, in through a swing door and down a corridor.
“This is the real store,” said Barry, taking out a key and unlocking the entrance to a windowless room off the corridor. “Tight security on this one.”
He ushered me in. Cans of beans, soup, meat and custard powder alongside jars of jam, boxes of tea bags and packets of sugar – all neatly stacked and ordered this time.
“This lot’s for Christmas. When each stack’s up to ceiling, I know I’ve enough.”
“It’s amazing,” I said, worried that there were no fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Each parcel will have one can from each pile,” Barry continued, “plus a jar of jam, twenty tea bags and either custard powder or dried milk.”
“That’ll be good,” I said, feeling like the Queen on a day-trip from the Palace. “And do you do parcels every week?”
A Queen’s question.
“Aye, but not with as much as that in them. Just five tea bags for instance. Can’t really afford more, you see. I don’t want to let any stack get down to floor, don’t want to be in position of having nowt in store cupboard – in case there’s a real emergency.”
As if there weren’t one already!
Barry watched with pride as I surveyed the store. When I peered at something, he picked up the item in question and explained its contents.
We finished our inspection. I reached into my pocket and pulled out an envelope.
“A little contribution,” I said.
“Give it to ladies, Joe.”
Barry locked the storeroom door and led me back to the canteen.
“Joe’s something for you girls,” he grinned.
I held out the crumpled envelope and a woman with grey hair approached me, drying her hands on a tea towel.
“Thanks very much, love,” she said, taking the envelope.
The other women crowded round behind her.
“It’s not much, I’m afraid.”
“Can we open it?”
A younger woman smiled at me and took the envelope from her friend.
“Of course,” I said
She opened the envelope, took out the money and counted the notes.
“Should be fifty pounds. We,” – I didn’t want to make the gift personal – “took it out of our script development money.”
“Right, girls,” said the younger woman. “We’re having a drink wi’ this.”
“It’s going straight in kitty,” said Barry.
“I make it a condition that each of the kitchen workers has a drink.”
“That’s right, love,” said the woman with grey hair. “Give ourselves a treat, eh?”
“We’ve been doing this since May,” added the younger one. “With no break.”
I was given a cup of tea and told to sit down. The women sat round me. Barry took his turn at drying dishes behind the counter. For the next fifteen minutes, I listened to stories of the current strike, memories of 1974, folklore from 1926 and finally the tale of a man – desperate for money – who had been sacked by the Coal Board for stealing a generator and cable and now couldn’t get help from the Union or Social Security.
“He had no money to pay bills, see,” said the grey-haired woman. “Young kids to keep warm and no heat. But union can’t condone stealing, can it?” The other women shook their head. “So he’s not even allowed in here now. It’s a shame, really.”
The women nodded, followed by a moment’s silence.
“SS says he can’t claim till he shows them a UB40,” added the younger woman, lifting her eyes to me. “But management won’t let him have that till strikes over.”
I wished Mary were there to offer advice. She knew about benefits.
“It’s a shame,” repeated the grey haired woman.
“Aye, it is,” chorused the others.
Again the silence, filled with the weight of a struggle almost too heavy to bear.
“I must go now,” I said, standing up.
The women rose too. I shook hands with each of them and then with Barry.
“Goodbye, Joe,” he said. “Thanks for dropping by.
I wished them a happy Christmas and squeezed out through the door.
“Come and see us again!”
“We won’t forget you, love!”
The feeling of warmth was so intense it hurt. I wanted to find them all the money in the world, to hug and assure them that not just me, but millions were on their side. I climbed into my car, hidden round a corner, and drove back to Leeds. There was nothing else to write about at the moment. Nothing.