Revisit the solidarity and song of the miners’ strike

From the Morning Star

GRANVILLE WILLIAMS previews a festival and book launch to celebrate the incredible worldwide response to the striking miners of ’84-’85 in their hour of need

WHEN French miners came off their final shift of 9-9bis in Oignies, Nord-Pas-de-Calais on December 20 1990 the media were crowded around the pit cage, just as on the final day of Kellingley Colliery in December last year.

9-9bis was the last pit to close in the Nord-Pas-De Calais coalmining region, but the two pit head buildings and winding gear are still maintained by former miners.

Around the region is evidence of the industry which once sustained its economy.

The “terrils” or “pyramides” (we call them slag or spoil heaps) have been preserved as monuments to, and reminders of, coalmining.

There has also been a striking addition in the former mine’s grounds, a stunning music and performance centre, Le Metaphone.

This was the setting for Rock ’n’ Coal in March last year, an imaginative programme of exhibitions, films, debates and music.

It was organised by a group of young French people called La Berline Collectiv (la berline is the French term for the tub used to bring the coal on steel tracks from the coalface) and I was there to speak on behalf of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.

It was a great weekend and it inspired us to rerun last year’s With Banners Held High.

That event celebrated the courage and resistance of the miners, their families and communities 30 years after the return to work at the end of the year-long strike.

This year’s With Banners Held High takes two of the themes from Rock ’n’ Coal. One is the amazing, and largely untold, story of the sheer scale of international solidarity in support of the miners in 1984-85.

At the French event I took part in a session with Daniel Dernancourt, who was the leader of the French miners at the time of the British miners’ strike, and he gave a moving account of the way French miners opened their homes for the children of British striking miners to have holidays, and how the miners, a section of the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT), mobilised to send a stream of money, food, toiletries and toys across to Britain which reached its peak in the run-up to Christmas 1984.

What Dernancourt described that day launched me on a journey of discovery to piece together the story of international support for the miners’ strike.

It took me to the People’s History Museum in Manchester, the TUC Library at the London Metropolitan University and the NUM Archives in Barnsley.

The material unearthed is truly remarkable. One small example: at the time of the strike the New Zealand Seamen’s Union had 1,300 members, but by August 1984 had donated $83,737 (£32,582) — equivalent to more than £25 per member.

The following month the NUM took delivery of 18,100lb of New Zealand lamb from the union.

Money came into the Miners’ Solidarity Fund from all over the world, often in small amounts.

One from Helsinki, Finland, after deductions, was for £20.71 with the message: “You are brave. Go on fighting to win.” And sometimes not money. On one occasion a parcel of walnuts arrived from Indian miners who had nothing else to give.

The NUM archives are organised meticulously, documenting country by country correspondence, bank transfer payment slips, photographs and press cuttings, all punched and collected in ring-bind folders.

The result of this research is a section in a new book, Pit Props: Music, International Solidarity and the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, which will be launched at With Banners Held High on Saturday March 5.

I am really pleased that Daniel Dernancourt will be speaking at the event, along with representatives from Denmark and other countries, in a session on international solidarity.

The other theme from Rock ’n’ Coal is music and the miners’ strike. Assembled among the headgear rooms of 9-9bis was a stunning exhibition of the record covers of the bands and singers who had lent their support to the miners. This theme also features in the book Pit Props.

The original French exhibition on music and the strike will be on display at Unity Works in Wakefield from February 19, along with three other exhibitions: the TUC Library’s Solidarity and the UK Miners’ Strike; photos by Report Digital’s John Sturrock and Stefano Cagnoni, and the late Martin Jenkinson on the theme of International Solidarity; and Peter Dunwell’s photos of musicians like Billy Bragg, Paul Heaton and The Hurriers.

With Banners Held High will be open from 10.30am through to 5pm with a packed programme of poetry, films, music and debates. In the evening a fundraising benefit has the headline act The Farm, supported by Joe Solo and The Hurriers, with compere Attila the Stockbroker. Proceeds will go to the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, Justice for Mineworkers, and the Oaks Memorial Trust. The Oaks Pit disaster on December 12 1866 claimed the lives of 361 men and boys and 150 years later a group of ex-miners are raising funds for a suitable memorial.

We hope the day will also be a fitting tribute to the demise of an industry which once played such a central and powerful role in Britain’s economy, political life, trade unionism, art and culture.