In 1984, we became embroiled in one of the most dramatic and epoch-changing events of that decade – the Miners’ Strike, which lasted for an entire year. Since we lived in one of the great coalfields of Britain, this event was of major importance for us and our wider community. Langley Park had been a coal-mining village until the colliery was closed down some eight years previously. Its workforce was either made redundant or moved to the East Durham pits. Every day more than a hundred men were bussed to the huge Wearmouth Colliery in Sunderland, a journey of nearly an hour. Then they set out to travel three more miles to the coalface – only this time it was under the North Sea where Wearmouth’s huge reserves lay, getting further out with every new seam which was opened. That three-mile subterranean journey could take another hour to complete.
Before the pit in Langley Park closed down, we took a guided tour of the working colliery in 1975. This involved going underground through a drift shaft – an entranceway tunnelled into the hillside and sloping downwards, rather than the pithead shaft which dropped straight down via winding gear and a cage, which was how the miners went to work. Although I knew that coal-mining was an unpleasant job, actually being underground in the claustrophobic damp darkness made it all too real. Down there the conditions were particularly difficult. Parallel to and underneath the bed of the River Brownie – a twenty-foot-wide gentle stream which flowed round the edge of the village at the foot of the hill on which the colliery was located – was another River Brownie. This one was 300 feet wide and fed by innumerable channels which seeped water into the shafts and had to be pumped out constantly. There was some modern automated cutting machinery, but a significant proportion of the coal-hewing was still being done by hand, by pickaxe, as late as 1975. A vivid memory was the underground stables for the pit ponies who lived out their entire working lives there, day and night. They had been used as recently as the 1960s. In the fields around the village, you could still come across some old ponies who were reprieved and put out to pasture when the practice of using animals underground was finally banned less than a decade before we moved to the village.
Alongside the drift shaft was the conveyor belt which brought the coal to the surface, dumping it in great mountains ready to be driven off to power stations. At the precise moment when we emerged, the afternoon shift was finishing and as we came out into the sunshine, not only was coal being spewed up out of the earth on the wildly vibrating conveyor belt, but so too were several dozen hunched-over dwarf-like black figures, looking like orcs from Lord of the Rings. Ducking low to avoid being decapitated by the box girders which supported the fast-moving conveyor belt, these grime-encrusted men, their features completely hidden by a thick caking of coal dust, were taking a shortcut out of the bowels of the earth so that they could get home a few minutes quicker than if they’d waited for the winding gear to winch them to the surface. Quite obviously, health and safety was not a priority here. And the symbolism of the conveyor-belt carrying both coal and labour as if there was no difference between the two has stuck with me ever since.
We knew the strike was coming several months before it actually started in the spring of 1984. Hindsight shows us that it was a conflict engineered by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government to provoke a showdown and break the power of the National Union of Mineworkers – a union that had twice before won resounding victories in the 1970s when the Tories were last in power. Now it was payback time, and a major battle in the right’s ideological war to defeat the power of the union movement as a whole. The issue was not about pay or conditions – it was about safeguarding jobs. The National Union of Mineworkers was making a stand against a program of pit closures, largely in the Midlands. The traditional solidarity of the collieries meant that practically every miner from Kent to Wales to Fife came out in support (the Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire coalfields were the exceptions). In County Durham this was observed 100%: for nine months not a single man crossed the picket lines and not one went back to work. During this time our shop supported the striking miners by providing them with weekly supplies of potatoes and other staples at cost price. We also threw in free contributions and produce which supporters bought and donated. It was quite a difficult undertaking because we had to keep the shop running at the same time. We drove back from Team Valley to Durham with a couple of tons of fruit and veg for the shop, quickly unloaded it, then headed back to the wholesale market immediately to pick up another couple of tons and take it to Easington Colliery where it was manually unloaded. During the course of the summer of 1984 and into the spring of 1985, we took turns at this, although I tended to do the bulk of it. What with the double loads, and the putting on and taking off by hand, I was lifting around eight tons of produce in a few hours. I’ve never been so fit or strong in my entire life.
On the four days a week when I wasn’t working, I was supporting the strike in other ways. While Pete and Rich were at the picket lines, I remained in Durham helping make up food parcels donated by the public to send out to the miners’ families. We also supplied the single, unmarried miners who were in an even more impoverished condition because, unlike the dependents of strikers who got some social security support, the single men got absolutely nothing. The NUM tried to help them with strike pay, but this was made difficult by government moves to freeze and sequester the union’s assets. Making up food parcels was crushingly boring and very unglamorous work, but I knew how important it was to help the men and their families who were making such huge sacrifices when it wasn’t even their own jobs on the line.
Far more interesting was the design and production of strike badges. Keith Brown, a radical Labour Party activist, and I made up dozens and dozens of designs – badges for every colliery in the Durham Coalfield, badges for supportive members of other unions (“National Union of Teachers Supports the Miners”), badges to commemorate events such as the pitched battles at Orgreave Coking Plant, and so on. These we sold to raise money for the strike funds which were channelled through the offices of Durham Colliery Mechanics, another union which operated in the mines and fully backed the strike. We eventually sold about 12,000 badges. We also raised more money by selling off prints and photographs signed by Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader, and even a few that we’d shamed Neil Kinnock, the unsuppportive leader of the Labour Party, into signing when he turned up at the annual Miners’ Gala meeting in Durham in the summer of 1984.
By early 1985, it was clear that the strike was lost, despite the unbelievable solidarity shown by communities of miners and their families across the length of the country. Nine months of poverty and deprivation finally drove a few desperate men back to work. Up until February 1985, not a man had gone back into work in County Durham, but hunger, loss of savings and family tensions finally overcame the strikers’ resolve. We had witnessed miners’ families selling off their possessions in Langley Park including, heart-wrenchingly, one young couple who’d even sold their baby’s pram. Rent wasn’t being paid, the threat of repossession and the bailiffs was growing more palpable, and on top of that it was a nasty cold winter.
I witnessed one of the sorry consequences of the cracking of the strike that February when I was coming home on the bus. The previous week a couple of men had finally given in and accepted a police escort into Wearmouth pit – they couldn’t possibly do any work on their own, but the Coal Board was happy to pay them just for turning up. That night one of those men was at the back of the bus, and a few other miners who were still on strike were up the front. At the first stop in the village, the man at the back got up to leave. Hissing “Scab!”, “Judas!”, “Blackleg!” his colleagues spat on the floor as he passed them. The poor man was devastated – these were his friends and neighbours, people he’d been to school with, people who had relied on him and each other to watch out for their safety and their very lives in the dangerous, hostile environment of a coal mine. He started to argue with them, or maybe he was pleading his case (he’d endured nine months of immiserating strike after all – a colossal sacrifce). Whatever, it was to no avail. Within less than a minute harsh words turned into physical violence and a fight broke out in the aisle of the bus. The strike-breaker and one of the strikers set to like two grizzly bears, crashing to the floor in a jumble of flailing limbs, cursing and shouting, punching and gouging. They remained locked together as they rolled like tumbleweed towards the front of the bus, where the driver deftly opened the door and the kicking, struggling pair fell out of the vehicle, cartwheeling down the pavement while the bus pulled away. It would have been comic in its cartoon-like imagery, except that it was utterly tragic. Two men who had stood shoulder to shoulder were now sworn enemies – the forces of darkness and injustice had achieved a double victory.
The medium and longterm effects of the defeat of the strike were equally devastating. Within a short time, most of the other pits in the Durham Coalfield were closed down. The number of men travelling daily from Langley Park to Wearmouth contracted as that giant colliery also slowly wound down. Unemployment, already fairly high in the village because of earlier rounds of industrial closure, shot up. Previously you had to travel to the next town of Lanchester to sign on; now Langley Park had its very own benefits office. Longer term, that increased rate of unemployment also translated into wider social problems. A heroin problem began to emerge, something utterly unheard of when we first moved to the village.