Sunday, 27 March 2011

Unity is Strength

For some peculiar reason, more often than not, whenever I go away from home, there is some sort of terrible event, usually on an international scale: an invasion, a war, sometimes the death of some iconic figure. Perhaps, far worse than merely being a dangerous anarchist whose movements must be monitored and filmed by our council's secret police force, I am also some sort of angel of destruction, and if I leave London, something is dislodged in the order of the universe, and chaos inevitably ensues. Or something. Curse of Mrs Angry, see?

The list is endless, I'm afraid. The Falklands: my fault. Gulf war: my fault. Worst of all: 9/11 - my fault. I killed Elvis, and Mao Tse Tung. As a schoolgirl, I was responsible for the invasion of Cyprus, and I can even (just about) remember a particularly gloomy birthday when I was a child, sitting on a beach in France, under an iron black stormy sky, surrounded by thousands of dead jellyfish, while my father told us about the invasion of Czechoslovakia. (This was in the bad old days, before it was considered necessary to enjoy yourself too much, and long before parents started taking their children on holiday to Eurodisney, or Centerparcs).

So it was with some trepidation, as usual, that I went up to the north east last week, and waited to see if the inevitable happened. And inevitably, it did, and of course, I sat and watched David Cameron tell us all about the necessity of a military action in Libya, followed by all the violence on top of violence which has consequently been unleashed.

The events of 9/11 will be forever connected, in my memory, with another, particularly dark visit back to the North East, where my mother's family were from, because on that day she and I were travelling up to Durham for her sister's funeral. When we arrived, there already was the sort of highly charged atmosphere you only get at such gatherings: the reunion of estranged relatives, the guilt, the sense of loss, the unspoken and unspeakable feelings, but all of this was intensely magnified by the depth of horror we all felt at the sequence of events unfolding in front of us on the antiquated tv, in what was once the rarely used front parlour of my grandparents' old house. Parlours in those days were to be kept for best, or more commonly, for funerals and wakes: a fitting venue then, for another wake, and to witness second hand what my father, in his confusion, thought was the beginning of the end of the world.

The next day, at the funeral, we stood silently, still stunned by the previous day’s events, in the town cemetery, appropriately enough at the foot of the discreetly contoured and grassed over slag heap that once belonged to one of the mines where my grandfather used to work. There was another ominously dark sky above, and a gale howling around us, in a suitably apocalyptic manner. And as the priest stumbled his way through the prayers it seemed that we were all saying goodbye to quite a lot more than the troubled life of my poor aunt.

It was impossible not to think about that day, standing in the same graveyard last week, thinking about, and missing, all the other members of my family who have gone now, and reflecting on all the changes that have happened since they died. The former slagheap is no longer an open space, but has been built on. Unless you know where to look, in fact, you would be hard pressed to find any trace of the mining industry on which the town, and indeed the whole of County Durham, once depended. The slum terraces where my grandmother was born, near Gateshead, have, like many others, been airbrushed out of the landscape: now the Angel of the North stands there, holding out her wings in a wide embrace, an industrial sculpture in an area where heavy industry no longer exists.

Where once there were pitheads, and slag heaps, and the oddly sweet smell of soot, and a shamelessly scarred landscape, there are green spaces and clean air, and boring, neat little housing estates - and even, in some lucky areas, a few small scale enterprises, trading estates and modest size factories. These commercial developments are mostly in the more fortunate parts of the county, however, where, in many areas, the smaller coal seams began to run out after the war, and the local authorities did all they could to encourage businesses to invest in their districts and provide alternative forms of employment for families who had worked exclusively in mining for generations.

Towards the eastern coastal side, the mines were deeper, and larger, and even extended miles under the sea. After Margaret Thatcher's war of attrition on the mining unions, it was these areas which saw their communities destroyed almost overnight by the retaliatory, merciless programme of pit closures. No time to prepare, to bring alternative employment and investment: the Tory government was interested only in market forces, and laissez faire economics - the survival of the fittest, and to hell with the rest.

You might have seen the film Billy Elliot: that was filmed in Easington, a town which has never recovered from the pit closures. It was created for mining, and mining was its life blood; when that was taken away, the town died. It has been described as the unhealthiest town in England and listed as fourth in the national index of of multiple deprivation: economic and social deprivation, blighted by the effects of unemployment: a generation of working men left dependent on benefits: a second generation without work, inclined to drug and alcohol abuse, the sort of social exclusion and welfare dependency the current Tory government is so quick to condemn without wondering who put them in that position in the first place.

Mr Ian Duncan Smith, another over privileged Tory minister who has probably never used public transport in his life, has stated that the unemployed in this sort of situation should simply get on a bus and travel miles in search of the plentiful work he thinks exists elsewhere. Anyone who has not been in this sort of area, and experienced how poor public transport is, and how isolating the effects are, how difficult it is for someone on a low budget to become economically adaptable, and find employment at long distance should, in my opinion, learn to keep his honourable mouth shut.

If he were to walk around some of the villages in this area, where many of my mother’s uncles and cousins once worked, he might begin to understand what a terrible thing it is to sacrifice the life of a community to an ideological show of strength. Deserted streets, boarded up shops, the few remaining businesses and services shuttered at night against vandalism and crime. It reminds you of a place under siege, like Northern Ireland, except that here the enemy is not republican or loyalist terrorism, but rather economic terrorism: a war against the poor.

Ironically, since the last mine closed five or six years ago, and almost all traces of the pits have disappeared, there has been a resurgence of interest in Durham mining history: there are dozens of books on the subject, and the Big Meeting, the annual Gala, has been reborn - with record attendance. Nostalgia is more potent than you might expect, and a commodity more commercial than the black stuff itself. You might think nostalgia for such times, and a way of life that was so dangerous, and so hard, is sentimental, and misplaced. If you want to see a miner talking pitmatic, anyway, or a canny housewife pretending to bake bread for her pretend husband and sons working down a non existent mine, you go to the Beamish open air museum, and see actors performing such roles in houses rebuilt, brick by brick, after being removed from the back streets of places like Hetton le Hole, just along from Easington. (The faux miner's wife's real partner probably works in a call centre, if he is lucky).

Why is there such interest in the grimy, safely distant past, and a way of life that has gone forever? Because, without sounding too trite, it is true to say that along with the hard times there really was a real sense of community, and mutual support. Many of the mining lodge banners have 'Unity is Strength' as their motto: and rightly so. Every pay increase and improved working condition that the miners ever gained was through solidarity with each other and the unions, and the support which the individual communities gave each other throughout the history of the mining era was intense, and unbreakable. Even after the defeat of the '84 strike, miners in Durham marched back to work with heads held high, and often with the colliery bands playing. Playing a requiem, as it turned out.

Social mobility is an interesting issue, isn't it? I was thinking a lot about this last week, about how people are trapped by economic circumstances by the constraints of class and lack of equal opportunity. My grandfather, handsome, vain, confrontational, a man of few words, a heavy drinker, an archytypal character straight out of D H Lawrence, was the sixth generation in his family to work as a miner. Ironically, he was the one that was expected to escape this fate, and, due to extraordinary family circumstances that would read like a particularly awful Catherine Cookson story if I bored you with it, he was sent by his foster family to a private school in Durham city, receiving an education few working class boys of his time could ever have hoped to have. After his time in the trenches, the return to 'no jobs for heroes' and a pregnant wife sent him to join his Irish brothers in law down the pit, where he stayed for forty years. I think that there he probably found his knowledge of Latin and Greek was of little benefit. In the crowd at one miners' Gala, in fact, he bumped into an old teacher, who asked him what he was doing, and was stunned to hear that he was now a miner, blurting out that he thought he would be a headmaster by now.

The humiliation of this encounter stayed with him forever. It wasn’t his fault: the limits of his life were defined by poverty, and the struggle for survival, and he could not escape. Worse still, he lost two children due to the ravages of ill health directly caused by the appalling living conditions they lived in, in slum housing and a lack of access to affordable healthcare. The fact that his standard of living eventually improved, over the years, was entirely due to the improvement in wages and working conditions gained by union campaigning and the unity of the miners, throughout the decades in which he worked. And then some of his children were able to escape the deprivation and constraints of his life thanks to new opportunities of a new society: education, healthcare, the welfare state.

Many people today would probably think that although there are areas of social deprivation, poverty, as it used to be measured, and as my family experienced it, no longer exists. This is not true, or not exactly. Poverty is relative, and mutable. It means being at the lowest economic and social level, an untoucheable caste, excluded from the mainstream, stuck in a trap. This is not something which has magically disappeared, and it is an indictment of our political system that it still imprisons so many people: and now looks set to trap even more.

The effects of Margaret Thatcher's governing years were far reaching, of course, and in many ways are still being felt, but the changes being wrought on our society by posh boy and his public school chums are surely going to be far, far worse. Thatcher, coming from a less than privileged background at least had some experience, stifled though it was, of the economic realities of the disadvantaged classes. Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, and their coalition colleagues understand nothing about what it is to be so distanced from the opportunities they take for granted.

The policies of the present government are striking at the roots of everything we have taken for granted for several generations now: access to free education, healthcare, welfare support. Families at the bottom of the social scale will be left isolated in ghettoes of increasing deprivation, with the failing schools, the worst healthcare, and savagely reduced benefit support. Many young people from such backgrounds who might have aspired to something better and work towards a more prosperous future will be held back by the prospect of the loss of EMA and, thanks to the treachery of the LibDems, by the burden of a grossly unfair rise in tuition fees. Our public schoolboy government does not understand and if they did, they wouldn't give a shit anyway. They have never had to rely on these support systems, and simply don't see them as the rest of us do: something precious, hard won, and part of our heritage.

If these escape routes are taken away, we are, once again, going to see generations trapped in new forms of poverty, in new variations of a class limitation that we might have thought had been thrown away forever.

The theoretical opportunities that this government likes to pretend exist for people to get out of a life of deprivation are as fake or useless as the industrial heritage artefacts and installations in an open air museum.

While the tourists go down a toy mine at Beamish, of course, they probably don't realise the grim irony of there being still hundreds of years of supplies lying untouched in the Durham coalfield. We still use enormous amounts of coal imported from abroad to make energy, and we have become a hostage to the fortunes of the oil rich nations of the world. Which brings us neatly back to Libya, and Iraq, and all the wars, death and destruction that have ensued in the struggle to protect our oil interests: maybe not entirely the fault of Mrs Angry, after all.

The miners ultimately lost their battle to save their industry, but there are still lessons in the long history of their struggle to survive and prosper which we ought to remember and reconsider, now that we are faced with another Tory government set on an agenda of radical social engineering as ideologically fanatical as anything that happened in the 80s. And how gratifying it is to see people being unified again in opposition, as they were yesterday on the streets of London, unified both locally and nationally, to what is happening here and now, in the country as a whole, and here in our borough, and on such a catastrophic scale. The truth is that if we don't want to see the whole country turned into an enormous open air museum, with acting roles only for the privileged few, we have to do something now to preserve what is left of our living heritage, before it is too late.

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