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Queen Coal
Women Of The Miners Strike

Triona Holden
Hardback £20
Published by Sutton Publishing

This is an immensely moving book. In some ways though, the title and the cover photo of Women Against Pit Closures is rather misleading. This isn't so much a book about women in the miners strike of 84/5, but a snap shot biography of five women who participated in that strike as activists. It tells their stories, their lives up to and after the great strike in their own words. People looking for some Hovis nostalgia, of quint happenings on cobbled streets will be in for shock if they chance upon this book to provide it. So too those who have convinced themselves that class doesn't really exist anymore and everyone is bathed in a kind of middle class security blanket. Life for these women was often brutality harsh, and their words are equally frank and stark. The work traces the lives of the women in the run up to the historic clash and how they featured within it and where they all stand now since it is over. The fifth women in the story is anonymous because her life is now severely damaged and she couldn't face the prospect of being identified, while others have coped quite well and ironically benefited from the experience, or perhaps made best use of it.
The book is compiled and authored by Triona Holden a young journalist of the period and accomplished writer and broadcaster. At the time her sister was married to a militant Barnsley miner and she herself worked at the Sheffield Star, in the heart of the South Yorkshire coalfield.
As a young female journalist thrown into the thick of that monumental struggle, she has an amusing set of experiences to relate which are told with true comedy. She had wanted to do a piece, live for radio Sheffield, hot from the picket line, with sounds of the pickets in full verbal assault on scabs and police and the noise of battle raging. However as soon as they seen her she became the event ."The only trouble was that every time the miners caught site of me they stopped shouting "scabs" and serenaded me with a popular football chant especially adapted for the occasion. It went something like the song ‘Leeds United, Leeds United, we'll support you to till we die, we’ll support you till we die’, only the words had been changed to ‘get your tits out, get your tits out, get your tits out for the lads..’
I pretended to be one of the boys and laughed back at them to show it was water off a ducks back. But it meant that I couldn't do the classic live broadcast that started ‘I am standing here in front of...’To do so would risk ending up with a famous bosom and zero credibility." (pg. 25/26)
This is not a history of Women Against Pit Closures, or ‘women of the coalfields’ per sae. There are features of women's involvement, the struggles
over roles and perceptions over which women argued constantly and invariably split over. Was it a ‘Ladies’ support group or a 'women's support group’ this was a vexious issue as was whether to work in the kitchen or go on pickets and tub thumping around the country. Most communities split along these lines too, with women generally doing one role or the other and sometimes in spite of each other. Many pit communities boasted more than one Women's Support group, and it had nothing to do with location, but everything to do with politics and perception and the struggle for ideas now out in the open of debate and struggle. None of this is really touched on here.
Women Against Pit Closures was a thoroughly indigenous movement in the mining communities. I was therefore baffled by the reference to " those who were parachuted into the coalfields, and once the action was over headed back to their middle class London homes to write their PhDs." We none of us know of anyone who meets this description unless Triona is referring to herself or one of her friends.
Triona is to be congratulated on bringing these women back together in print and allowing them to have their say in their own way. I have however criticisms of Triona’s own perceptions in attempting to outline the strike, its causes and the position in post 84/85 mining communities.
She makes no attempt to challenge the press misinformation peddled at the time of the dispute and repeats many of the myths. "Arthur Scargill called for a walk out- there was no national ballot" (pg. 2 introduction) The strike started in Yorkshire, (where incidentally there had been a ballot a couple of years before in anticipation of impending closures). The Yorkshire miners voted at mass pithead meetings and welfare mass meetings to strike in defence of jobs and in particular against the closure of Cortonwood Colliery. Arthur wasn't in the Yorkshire Area during this period. He had no mechanism whatever to ‘call for a walk out’ and didn't speak at the meetings which decided to do so, nor even was he present at them. The decision NOT to have a national ballot, was one decided upon by a national delegate conference representing every pit and workplace in the mining industry. The resolution to that effect came from Yorkshire, Arthur didn't speak in favour of it, or any of the other resolutions at that conference as he was in the chair and remained impartial throughout. When the vote was taken he didn't vote and their was no NEC recommendation. But she actually says she doesn't want to dwell on how the strike started " But that is all academic now. The strike happened. It lasted a year." Actually yes it is academic, but shouldn't a journalist in an industry which created so many myths now repeated by ‘academics’ and academic works to the point where history has been reinvented actually take the time to study and print the facts this time round ? Instead she compounds those myths and misinformation, the notion that somehow the strike was something the miners had been manipulated into and had no control over, for example. "I witnessed the damage it did to real people, not politicians, or union bosses who didn't know what it was like to go hungry. The victims were families like yours and mine, the silent majority who were generally law-abiding,authority respecting souls" (pg. 4)
She also has an unfortunate turn of phrase which alludes to the well known ‘common sense’ conclusion that all this, pit closures and job losses , defeat of the NUM were somehow preordained. She calls it "the inevitable passing of their way of life." And "they were drowning in a dying culture". It wasn't inevitable at all of course. The strike as it was, came to within a gnats bollock of winning, and defeating the whole Thatcher scheme, not just the pit closures on at least three occasions. This is evidenced by subsequent research and not least the biographies of MacGregor and Thatcher herself. Had the offensive against the miners and the NUM came to spectacular and violent grief her whole perspective against the Unions et al would have crumbled with her entire government rationale. They would have fallen and the whole New Labour Frankenstine would have been stillborn. So none of this culture had to drown, and their was nothing inevitable about the fate of the pit communities.
Triona also gives a very confusing impression as to the chronology of the struggle against closures and in defence of pit communities especially by the women.
Her book starts at the end so to speak, with a recent small protest against the closure of the last of the Selby super-pits Riccall. The Selby Coalfield closed last year after mining 100, million tonnes of coal in twenty years, but abandoned twice that much still virginal and untapped. She contrasts the small assembly with the mass protests of 84/5. She leaves out completely however the resurgent mass struggle of 1992/93 when women, if anything, played a much more leading role than they had in 84/85 and took the initiative from the union. To read Triona and presumably her selection of writing from the women, one would believe we went straight from 1985 to today and the mass movement and civil disobedience and strike action of 1993 just didn't happen. It doesn't rate a mention.
Talking of a photo of Cortonwood pickets Feb. 1985 "It was taken in February 1985 at the end of the dispute- a time when it was clear the government had won. The world in which these people had lived was coming to an end: nothing would ever be the same." Well if she is talking of the Cortonwood mine and perhaps something of its community that may be true, but it wasn't true of the miners or the industry. To this extent Thatcher had actually failed. By 1987/88 there were still well over 100,000 miners in the industry, more than 80% of whom belonged to the NUM supplying up to 90% of all power to the national grid. Our way of life was not coming to an end in 1985, not overall anyway. This would require a further offensive against the miners, this time launched by John Major in 1992/93 and a new battle commenced. It wasn't until our defeat after that further struggle that we could see the terminal decline and utter destruction of the British coal industry and the pit communities. But in 1985 we actually still had it all to play for.
I must say that despite the realities depicted by the women folk themselves the author tends to give contemporary events rather a rose coloured spin, like it all worked out well in the end.
"The women say their ‘public enemy number one’, Margaret Thatcher, is a case in point. As she wiped away tears when she got the sack as Prime Minister, the mining folk felt they had the last laugh. They delight in the thought that the property boom, nascent in Thatcher years, has benefited their communities. It has meant that the more historic and traditional pit villages have become gentrified .The humble homes that miners struggled to hang onto through the strike are now worth many times what they were in 1984/85. They had no idea that they were sitting not just on coal mines but gold mines as well. And what a twist of fate that this good fortune is down to policies championed by the women who, they feel, tried to destroy them." She make the point more than once that she is quite chuffed to see old pit houses selling for £100,000.
In the odd rural pit community this might be the case though it is rare, it is however overall a rather selective reflection. Most people visiting the former pit communities of Britain, from Scotland to Barnsley to Wales, see not ‘gentrified’ villages but the deprivation, the poverty and run down communities rotten with hopelessness, unemployment, the black economy, anti social crime and drug addiction. Overwhelmingly former miners are living on benefits and their children if they are working at all are in dead end jobs, or else have moved away. They top the list for ill health, infantile mortality, premature death and chronic disease. True, the backwash of the southern property boom, creating a property shortage, has meant even the humble pit house has risen in value maybe by a factor of five over the last fifteen years. But that's not the point. Who wants to move to a pit village with no pit and no work in a community which has lost all hope ? How do you sell a house here and expect to get enough money to buy another one not in a place of chronic unemployment and deprivation which have seen prices rise by a factor of ten or more ? The only folk buying houses here are the same folk who have always lived here. If you cant rent, and normal folk seemingly cant, all you have left is to mortgage yourself up to your eyeballs and live in debt. Old folk move into old folks homes or with relatives, freeing up some old houses while those younger people landing one of the scarce jobs, usually working away, might manage to move up the property scale a little and take out a new mortgage, but none of this is hardly what I would call 'gold mining' .
I have no wish to nit pick Triona’s work, this is a good initiative and a good book if looked at mainly from the lives of the women telling their own stories, which is anyway its point. It is disappointing that even someone like Triona who is clearly moved by the strengths and lives of the women she has studied did not take time to set right the background history and subsequent events in which those women engaged. As biographies of working class fighting women, well done, as a social history of the miners struggles, look elsewhere.
David Douglass.