Moving on seamlessly...
Childhood holidays for Booker-winning author DBC Pierre ranged from Acapulco to Tahiti. But none, he says, left so deep an impression as his summer visits 'back home' to the Durham Miners' Gala - or witnessing the sudden death of mining communities
Wednesday September 1, 2004
Something like a storm blew through Durham City. It had been grumbling
since dawn from the edges of town; booming, blaring imminent apocalypse.
It fell on the town in lusty gales of brass, pipes, drums, and wave after
wave of men, women and children, marching under banners that shone with
My first Durham Miners' Gala. I was only a child. I drowned in it.
That was the late sixties, and the miners' gala had been a summer fixture
in Durham's city centre for almost a century. It became the brightest
part of a dependable north-eastern beat beneath my stateless, improvised
life. My grandparents, and theirs before them, lie buried in the lands
around the pit
I often returned to Durham around the second Saturday in July, as the curious expatriate my uncles, aunts and cousins still know as "our Pete"; often stayed in some randomly let flat within the greater coalfield. School holidays of the era nourished by their contrast: Acapulco; Tahiti; Chester-le-Street. Or: New York; Hong Kong; Shincliffe. These hardly turned my litmus red, yet still the north-east, the family, the Durham Miners' Gala, and the people who made it, became my tether to the real.
The gala first arose as Big Meeting Day in 1871, around the date pit
bosses would meet at the Royal County Hotel to set miners' wages. Having
formed their first union in 1869, mineworkers came to lobby them. Over
time, they made one hell of a day of it, and brought their banners and
brass bands with
And perhaps that was the way to see it; unwashed by political dye. Just
people celebrating the power of coming together, trumpeting their struggle
across the land. The precise nature of The Struggle grew in me more as
a feeling than a thought, an accompaniment to being sucked under by the
raucous power of a mile-long snake of bands in full simultaneous voice.
It lived in the sting of diesel soot, in the shine of a heavy uniform
ironed 20 years too long; in the men, women and children of the pit villages
No Disney colours, no pantomime frills; though beneath the occasion's stolid pride, underneath the gilded banners and scrawled exhortations to class war, I found the skull-and-crossbone flags, bright plastic toys and kiss-me-quick hats that lured me gently towards the concept of The People. I fell to the north-east's pull - the pull of a place where self-sufficient communitiesexisted nearly a century before the welfare state - while splashing through a flotsam of trinkets on the tideline of the joyous and the grave.
In revealing the city's rococo curiosities to me, my great uncle Wilf, a stalwart companion until his death, illuminated his own story. His life unfurled as I learned the names of the seams that make up the Great Northern Coalfield: Brockwell, Busty, Tilley, Harvey, Hutton, Durham Low Main, Maudlin, Durham Main and Five Quarter, once all better known than players in a football team. Durham Castle, with its dungeons and ghosts, the shed-sized woodland mansion of a midget count, the cathedral of the Prince Bishops, all gradually paled behind his story and, to me, his became the story of all around.
This year, his family and mine remembered him. "He was a pitman,
not a miner," stresses my uncle Bill. "A pitman. He lay on his
side in a seam, in inches of water, hacking away by hand." Wilf left
school early to work underground. Like many lads of his day, he paid full
fare; coal dust settled in his lungs, condemning him to a lifelong struggle
for breath. Pitman's Disease. With the proper regional stoicism, he carried
it quietly, and lived long enough to salute his fellow mineworkers from
the balcony of the Royal
For decades, all the left's brass applauded the parade from that balcony;
each band paused in turn to play a salutory tune from the venerable British
playlist for military and brass band, or some select arrangement of its
own, before marching to the playing fields for rallying speeches and enough
Then came the great strike of the mid-eighties. New resonance attached to the black trimmings that hung from certain banners in memory of those newly perished at the coalface. Yet despite the omens, the Great Northern Coalfield, a rich, unspent patch that once supported 180 pits and some 200,000 mineworkers - indeed, once the very engine of the nation - was ablaze with wartime spirit. Makeshift kitchens sprang up around the pit villages, such that strikers were spoilt for choice. There was a sense that this wasn't just a war between miners and the coal board, or between the unions and Thatcher's machine, but a vital fulcrum in socialist history. It was a battle that shouldn't be lost, for the future's sake.
But, despite many hard-won concessions, lost it was. The very reason for the gala - indeed, the very lifeblood of the region - soaked into history's gloom. As mines across the country died, traditional galas died with them; South Wales held its last gala in 1984, even as the knell of the British coal industry was rung. The Great Northern Coalfield drew breath until 1993, when the last pit closed in County Durham. The Durham Miners' Gala was expected to die with it.
It didn't. What died was my illusion that the people of the affluent west somehow held the reins of government. Ever used to the berets, the tufted beards and the doubtfully coined dogma of the Latin American college milieu, I was until then a largely apolitical animal. Revolution was a fashion choice. The concept of "guided" democracy had passed me by, to say nothing of the more sinister latitudes it could explore. But then, my life under a single-party dictatorship that masqueraded as a centre-left democracy was easier that way. That was Latin America.
Through an entire childhood, adolescence and early adulthood living in the world's largest urban concentration of people - poor, spirited people - nothing prepared me for the sight of a nation's police machine so bitterly deployed against tens of thousands of young men trying to stay employed.
England showed me that. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the great miners' strike. I returned to Durham to see what had become of the country's only surviving gala, and the people whose voice it had written so large. While Thatcher's government may have destroyed many things in the north-east, the mineworkers' unions, and the defiant pride of the region, weren't among them. This year saw the 120th gala storm through Durham's ancient streets, and it throbbed as ever it did.
George Robson, tireless gala co-ordinator for the last 27 years, told
me over a pint in the Royal County Hotel: "It's as if the gala's
been through 10 years of mourning. But this year there have been new banners
Back it clearly is. But while the gala remains a great day out, I wondered whether the same sharp edge, the sting of miners' causes, their struggle, their politics, would be missing from what may have become a simple celebration of heritage. Where might its future lie?
I found one answer on the hotel balcony. Applauding alongside union dignitaries stood South Africa's high commissioner, Lindiwe Mabuza; accompanying her in the weekend's festivities was South Africa's AngloGold choir on their first trip to the Gala. In a world quickly turning right, it seems the Gala's arms are wide open. As I jostle past the balcony with the crowd, I sense something in the composition of assembled dignitaries has changed. I turn to one of the marchers.
"Isn't the leader of the Labour party usually invited to preside from the balcony?"
"Aye, we've had Attlee, Wilson, Callaghan... "
"So where's Blair?"
"You're joking, man," laughs the marcher, "he wouldn't bloody dare."
In a classic demonstration of mineworking spirit, one pit community has
set out to ensure that New Labour doesn't miss the flavour of the cause.
As if delivering sandwiches saved in a napkin, it's made a habit of marching
a brass band and a handful of banners to Blair's back yard in Sedgefield...
· DBC Pierre's novel, Vernon God Little, won the Man Booker prize in 2003.