Celebrate the music, art and activism inspired by the miners’ strike

© Neil Theasby / CC BY-SA 2.0

The 1984/85 Miners’ Strike was a year like no other. The legacy of its defeat can be seen today in our workplaces and communities following an advancement of free-market capitalism that has resulted in low pay, precarious work and the extensive privatisation of our public services. However, many of those involved in the strike do remember that time and draw on its many positives.

As well as the unified backing that came from other groups who were experiencing the same oppression and hostility from the police, government and media of the day – such as women, LGBT+ people and the BAME community – many artists and musicians were proactive and vocal about their support for the miners, their families and their communities.

Tonight on September 17th, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign will host an online event, as part of a week of events for Heritage Open Days, to mark and celebrate the role of music and art in activism at the time of the strike and in the present, when activists, artists and musicians stand together now as strong as ever.

During the strike, money was raised through benefit events and exhibitions to prevent miners from being starved back to work and to enable them to continue the strike on the picket lines. But this went much further than financial help, as supporters used their platforms to raise awareness and reach people who were not necessarily part of the labour and trade union movement. Just as the legacy of the strike lives on as a pivotal moment in our trade union history and a turning point in the policing of protest, so does the solidarity of those musicians and artists who chose to stand up and shout out against injustice.

Art, music and activism is a huge area to cover and we will inevitably miss out many contributions. This is not intentional. Some names are familiar and their output and efforts still inextricably linked with protest, such as Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Somerville, George Michael, Tom Robinson, Paul Weller, Paul Heaton and Test Dept, to name but a few. Wham, Style Council and New Order were involved with many others in the miners’ benefit at the Royal Festival Hall in 1984. The concert featured acts such as Lindisfarne and the Flying Pickets. Bruce Springsteen famously played St James’ Park shortly after the end of the strike in 1985 and quietly donated $20,000 to the Durham and Northumberland Miners Association. Billy Bragg travelled up and down the country playing numerous miners’ welfares, as well as publicly rallying support throughout the strike, and George Michael made large donations.

One of the most famous examples was the ‘Pits and Perverts’ benefit gig that was organised by the London Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and headlined by Bronski Beat. The concert was a huge financial success, raising the equivalent of over £20,000 in today’s money for striking miners and their families in South Wales. It was also the scene of a truly historic political breakthrough when Dai Donavan from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) got up on the stage to tell the 1500 strong audience: “You have worn our badge, ‘Coal not Dole’, and you know what harassment means, as we do. Now we will pin your badge on us; we will support you. It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems.” The miners were true to their word. Not only did they bring their trade union banners to the 1985 Gay and Lesbian Pride parade in London, but the NUM helped push through gay rights policies at the 1985 Labour conference.

The tradition of brass bands in mining communities is a strong and important one and plays a vital cultural role in working-class communities. That tradition continues: although many of the village and pit bands no longer exist, many brass bands still do, and we are regularly supported by the Unite brass band at our events and demonstrations. Actor, singer and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson formed a strong bond with the mining communities of Wales and Scotland and is famous for his beautiful rendition of Joe Hill filmed in 1949 as he sang to the Scottish miners. And last but not least we all remember the uplifting song and anthem written for Women against Pit Closures during the strike by Mal Finch, We Are Women We Are Strong.

The artwork of miners’ banners was already a proud part of mining heritage long before the strike, but many new and wonderful pit banners were creatively designed during the strike and in its aftermath. Andrew Turner was one of the artists who produced some magnificent banners and his work has had a significant impact nationally and internationally. Film director Ken Loach is one of many admirers of his work and Turner recently produced another beautiful piece of artwork for the National Women Against Pit Closures banner.

The LGSM banner produced by Mark Ashton during the strike was also a symbol of solidarity, and the recent banner made by Alice Kilroy based on the design of the LGSM badges brings colour and positivity to many events and demonstrations. The Durham Women’s Banner Group was initially set up to support and celebrate women in their roles within trade unions, politics and communities and to engage, educate, empower and recognise the contribution of women locally, nationally and internationally. Their first project was to design and produce a community patchwork banner, drawing strength from the women who ran free cafes throughout the miners’ strikes and their determination to build and support communities. The banner, which was designed and produced by more than 50 women from the County Durham coalfield area, marched in its first Durham Miners’ Gala in 2018. More projects have been planned including the creation of a Women’s Banner Group silk banner.

Many plates were produced throughout the country during the strike to help raise desperately needed money and the profile of the communities involved. Many had a limited run of around 250 and were a piece of art and literature, portraying colour and passion on the front with a potted history and fascinating facts about the mines and the workers in them on the back. In Derbyshire, Orgreave veteran and active NUM member Brian Martin was involved in the production of plates. His words are on the back of many of them and he initiated many public displays of them. Every badge, sticker, T-shirt, mug, keyring, lamp, ornament, leaflet and poster was creatively designed to advance the cause, many of which are now collectors’ items. Many of the designs for these and the plates and banners also adorn the walls of activists, historians, miners and their families in the form of cards, photographs and posters.

The Pitmen Painters were founded in Northumberland in the early 1930s as a Workers’ Educational Association class, giving mining families access to the arts. Their wonderful paintings were inspired by the artists’ own lives in the areas where they lived, the pits they worked in and the pit ponies they worked with. The group held its first exhibition in 1936 in Newcastle, and many of the paintings are on permanent display. Inspired by former Derbyshire miner and OTJC activist John Dunn, Darren Coffield created artwork using coal obtained from the National Union of Mineworkers branch at Maltby Colliery. An image commemorates the police riot at Orgreave and portraits include NUM leaders Arthur Scargill, Peter Heathfield and Mick McGahey and miner David Jones, who died aged 24 on the picket line. A portrait of Margaret Thatcher is also represented with rust on iron.

Recently a mural was commissioned in Seaham, called ‘Above, Beyond, Below‘, painted onto the side of the Volunteer Arms, the pub and cafe in St John’s Square. It was created by artist Jamie Holman who designed the work, with Cosmo Sarson painting it. As well as the murals, there are a huge number of memorials dedicated to the strike, mining industry and pit disasters in the form of statues and other forms of public art to honour the proud mining heritage. Body art and tattoos have become another lasting tribute and form of art depicting the mining industry and the strike.

The tradition of progressive resistance continues today, with musicians like Grace Petrie, Public Service Broadcasting, The Fates, The Hurriers from Barnsley, Lily Gaskell, Joe Solo, O’Hooley and Tidow, Roy Bailey, Lady Maisery, Dick Gaughan and Robb Johnson all leading from the front. There is also the wonderful tradition of choirs ranging from the miners’ male voice choirs and the radical community-based choirs melding political singing with political activism. The Sheffield Socialist Choir, The Commoners and Out Aloud are amongst many fine examples.

Stalwarts of the folk-punk genre Ferocious Dog drew one of the largest ever crowds at the Leftfield stage at Glastonbury with a set featuring songs about the strike, reaching a whole new generation. Ken Bonsall, their lead singer, was himself a miner for 30 years and had family members who were ’12 monthers’ and loyal to the NUM in Nottinghamshire. Ken says: “Using music to protest against injustice and unfairness at the hands of the state is what drives the band.”

Sheffield band Reverend and the Makers burst on the music scene in 2007 with their single Heavyweight Champion of the World, the title being taken from Barry Hines’ classic film Kes. Their music rings out with the stories of working-class Sheffield and lead singer Jon McClure keeps up the tradition of music and protest in his work with Love Music, Hate Racism and as one of the founders of ‘Instigate Debate’. “Music needs a political voice now more than ever, to care about the world we live in and to question the government”, says Jon. “We need political art and music to promote working-class culture and experience as a force for social change.”

In 2014, to mark the 30th anniversary of the strike, with the help of The Hurriers’ Tony Wright and Philosophy Football, the Orgreave Campaign produced its own sellout CD Orgreave Justice. Musicians and bands all donated songs to support the campaign. With songs from The Movement, New Model Army, Grace Petrie, Quiet Loner, Thee Faction, Blaggers ITA, Joe Solo, Steve White and the Protest Family, Billy Bragg and Louise Distrass as well as other comradely bands and musicians, the album listing is in itself a catalogue of activists who state loud and clear “which side” they are on.

The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign has always applied a creative approach to the literature, leaflets and banners it produces. The use of ‘a serious crime happened here’ graphic, conceptualised and designed by Joe Rollin and Jamie Walman, dramatically makes paradoxical use of police incident posters. Every year, the campaign’s version is displayed on the route of the annual rally march in June. The PCS samba band often join us to make our actions and demonstration vibrant and lively such as our ‘Make Some Noise’ demonstration outside the Home Office in 2017. Our campaign is easily recognised by our Coal Not Dole logo taken from the NUM badges and stickers of the strike. We put a lot of emphasis on designing our banners, badges, publicity and fundraising merchandise with the help of designers such as Craig Oldham, Andrew Fox and Jamie Walman.

Art, of course, is not necessarily static. We have also had the privilege of working with artists who have organised artistic films, walks, clothing and events to highlight the mining industry and political protest. Sam Vardy and Paula McCloskey of the independent art and spatial research practice ‘A Place of Their Own’ recently organised a successful walk and performance and political art event over the political and geographical landscape of Orgreave and Treeton involving LGBT+, anti-fracking, OTJC and other justice activists. Yuen Fong Ling is an artist who organised a recent touring exhibition, ‘Towards Memorial’, involving LGSM, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and the Friends of Edward Carpenter, using film, photographs and the making of footwear to explore the legacy of class, clothing, LGBT+ rights, social justice and political campaigning.

Thursday’s online event, ‘Music, Art and Activism: Cultural Creativity and the Miners’ Strike’, will feature special performances from folk musician and activist Sam Browse, Ferocious Dog lead singer Ken Bonsall, and Yorkshire folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow. There will also be panel discussions on music and art with Mike Jackson (LGSM), Melissa Maddison (Unite brass band), Paula McCloskey and Sam Vardy (A Place of Their Own), artist Yuen Fong Ling, graphic designer Craig Oldham (Office of Craig) and Jon McClure of Reverend and the Makers.

Given the economic situation we are in now, the idea that people do not passively accept what the market dictates to them still inspires many artists and musicians to connect with that tradition. We need to be reminded of those ideals of resistance as a result of the forces that were unleashed in the wake of the miners’ strike in order to help us deal with the great difficulties we face. Music and art play a vital role in our struggle now more than ever.

Watch the event on Thursday 17th September at 7pm live on the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign Facebook Page.

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