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Miner's Hymns

"40 Years On" National Coal Board 1978 (BFI)

Mike Quille reviews two new films: Miners’ Hymns which is out on DVD, and a new film called DS30, which will be shown in Durham a few days before the Miners Gala

What do we make nowadays of the 1984 Miners' Strike? How do we deal, emotionally and politically, with the legacy of defeat of the biggest struggle between the state and the organised working class since the 1926 General Strike, and with all the setbacks we’ve suffered since then? What is the way forward?

The forthcoming Durham Miners’ Gala on July 11th, and the showing of a new film about the miners a few days before that, seems a good time to look at these questions again through reviewing a film called Miners’ Hymns which is out on DVD, and a new film called DS30, which will be shown in Durham a few days before the Gala.

Mining and the miners

The mining industry was central to the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of industrial capitalism across the globe. Millions of miners in this country dug coal out of the ground for hundreds of years, providing the energy that powered industry, fuelled transport and heated houses. The dangerous, unhealthy, backbreaking work of men and women in pit communities made rapid capitalist development possible, in this country and elsewhere. It powered the Industrial Revolution, sustained the British Empire, and ultimately helped create the modern day global dominance of industrial and financial capitalism. The labour of miners and their families produced vast fortunes and huge power for individuals, companies and countries.

Their creation of wealth was matched by their political achievements. They helped create and propel to power trade unions and the Labour Party, and through them the Welfare State: free, universal education and healthcare, decent housing, and benefits to alleviate the suffering of unemployment, poverty, sickness, and old age.

The miners were always one of the strongest elements of the organised working class, in the forefront of class struggle against capitalism. That’s why they were seen, by politicians like Thatcher, as the main ‘enemy within’ to be beaten in open conflict in 1984, and their industry closed down forever so they could never pose a threat again.

For all these reasons, mining has always stimulated works of art, particularly art with a political content, much more than any other industry or occupation. Over the last few years there have been many treatments of the mining industry and the 1984 Strike in film, literature and music, as artists look back at the past and try to relate the meaning of what happened then to what is happening now. Most evoke mixtures of nostalgia, sadness, and commemoration, with perhaps the best example being Miners' Hymns, a mournful, poetic elegy to the mining industry.

Bill Morrison, an American multi-media artist, has mined contemporary and archive film footage to create a poetic and elegiac memorial to the industrial and political culture of the Durham miners, before their jobs and communities were snuffed out by Thatcherite economics in the eighties and nineties. It was commissioned for the 2014 AV International Festival.

It starts with aerial shots of the East Durham coastline, of the supermarkets, business parks and grassed fields which now cover the sites of former collieries. Then the music starts, a gentle cacophony of haunting, insistent brass over decaying church organ chords. The soundtrack to the film, by the Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, is inspired by Gresford, the ‘miners’ hymn’, composed by a North East miner after a terrible pit disaster which claimed several hundred lives.

The Big Meeting

Footage of waves breaking on the shore is reversed, and we’re taken back to the past, to one of the postwar Durham Miners’ Galas. Crowds of flat-capped men, with faces as hard as the rock they struggled with, have gathered for the political speeches. Women also stare at the camera: their lined faces show that they too know the meaning of hard work. They seem to be asking: where is the wealth we worked so hard for? What have you done with what we left you?

Then slowly, we’re taken to the primary site of their struggle and suffering, the pit. We follow the miners as they walk to the pithead through dark, deserted streets, and descend in cages to the black underworld of the coalface. The brass accompaniment reaches a rumbling and roaring crescendo as we witness the work. Older footage shows pickaxes being swung at two-foot high seams by men lying in water. Trolleys laden with coal, drawn by horses, pushed by men, traverse the intense, Orphean darkness. In more recent footage, massive coal-cutting machines cut through the seams like butter, shearing off huge slabs of coal onto the conveyor belts which are carried out of the mine. We’re watching the production of the wealth of the nation: where is it going?

We come out of the pit, into the fresh air, and see other aspects of life in the pit communities. Seacoalers bag coal off beaches; children slither down mountainous slag heaps; boys play cricket on the road, in terraced villages festooned with washing lines.

Orgreave

We watch as preparations are made for the Gala. The cathedral is glimpsed over Durham’s wet roofs, and miners and their families begin arriving. Suddenly the film cuts to 1984, and hundreds of police are assembling to protect buses with a handful of strikebreakers on them. Then we’re at Orgreave, watching pitched battles between police and miners. We see squads of police cavalry charging, riding the miners down, truncheoning defenceless pickets.

Then we’re back to aerial shots of former mines, now covered by car parks and other new developments. The music has become subdued, consoling.We watch more archive film, going back to before the First World War, of smiling miners coming off shift, pouring out of the pitheads. And then we’re back at the Big Meeting, watching trade unionists on the march, young people dancing through the streets, whole communities marching together behind their brass bands and lodge banners. The music builds to a climax as the miners march proudly into the cathedral, and then is lowered to a respectful finale for the blessing of the banners.

The film itself is a kind of blessing, a kind of hymn to the miners. Each of the sequences lays down veins of meaning, about work, history, struggle and celebration, like seams of coal. Avoiding nostalgia and sentimentality, and showing clearly the brutal, destructive class war unleashed on mining communities, it is a dignified homage to the miners and their families, to their sheer hard work, and to a cultured, collective, and co-operative way of life that has been all but destroyed. There has never been a more beautiful, moving and truthful memorial to the industrial working class.

And it works as a kind of dialogue with the ghosts of those miners and their wives. They gaze out at us as the wealth they created is transmuted into Capital and used to build financial capitalism, global capitalism, exploiting new generations of proletarians across the world. They watch us cheerfully, hopefully, as the Labour Party they supported and sustained betrays them in the eighties, abandons Clause Four and any pretence of socialism in the nineties, severs its links with trade unions in the noughties, and loses general elections in 2010 and 2015. And they stare at us as the Welfare State they struggled to create is dismantled and destroyed, like their jobs, their industry and their communities.

They are asking, what has happened to the wealth we created for you?

The deep red radical colour of anger

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DS30, a film by the music group Test Dept, brings a complementary but contrasting emotional perspective to  bear on the same story: the deep red radical colour of anger. It is an explosive synthesis of industrial, politically committed music, with film techniques of editing and montage of archive film, inspired by the constructivism of the early Soviet Union.

The film was first shown at Dunston Staiths, a massive wooden jetty built on the River Tyne in 1893 to ship coal from the Durham coalfields to the world. 

It starts with an old map of Newcastle and the North East, with dots marking the pits. Archive footage of miners trooping out of shafts and tunnels, accompanied by blasts of noise from massive mining machinery, is shown alongside the dancing and speeches at the Big Meeting in Durham.

Then the sonic and visual pace quickens, and the heavy industrial beats become louder. Shocked by a kinetic barrage of sound and image, we watch the organised state violence at Orgreave, the blurred batons of the police cracking open miners’ skulls. Arthur Scargill utters his prophetically accurate warning to us, 'They've come for the miners, and I warn the rest of trade unionism that when they come for you there'll be no one to protect you'.

And finally we see pithead towers blown up, and in a moving series of ghostly before and after images we see collieries, railways, and all the mucky yards and spoilheaps of the coal industry morph into green, landscaped fields and concrete car parks. The dots on the map disappear, one by one.

It is a brilliant evocation of the sheer sound and fury of both the mining industry and the 1984 Strike, of the huge, heavy and violent rhythms of the fiercest industrial and political struggle in living memory. It is a committed, raw, and enraged artwork, a jagged and disturbing reminder of the solidarity of the mining communities and of their betrayal and defeat.

The film succeeds in fusing our sad and bitter memories of the past with our anger and despair at the injustices of the present. Like the events it depicts, it leaves us feeling battered and beaten, and emotionally drained. But like all good political art it also works to mobilise our anger and sense of justice. The 'Stakhanovite sound' of industry and of the miners' lives down the pits, at the Gala, and during the Strike is like a drumcall, forging a sense of collective commitment and solidarity in us.

Emancipating the working class

Dave Temple is an ex-miner, former NUM official and author of 'The Big Meeting', the authoritative history of the Gala. He spoke after DS30 was shown at the Tyneside cinema, Newcastle.

'The working class’s apparent disconnection with politics is illusory' he said. 'What they are disconnected from is professional politicians who do not change their lives for the better, and those who shout revolutionary slogans without relevance to the day to day problems of ordinary people. But people have to face these problems, which are getting worse.

'I am not talking about the ‘Big Society'. I am talking about us building self help networks like the foodbanks, in the way our mining communities did in the past, and helping people to cope. A large anti-capitalist movement could develop from these micro movements.

'We all need to remember the first rule of the First International, that the emancipation of the working classes must be carried out by the working classes themselves.'

Both DS30 and Miners’ Hymns represent politically charged, inspiring art which make us aware of something desperately important to the political left. Which is that the anger, grief and compassion that we feel about what happened to the miners are the same feelings that we have about the recent general election, the bedroom tax, benefits sanctions, foodbanks, the Middle East, and the plight of desperate, dispossessed emigrants fleeing from Libya to Calais.

And we realise that it is the memory of collective suffering and struggle, and the sense of justice which these films inspire, that will help build in us the strength, hope and determination to continue the miners’ historic struggle for a better future.

Notes

Miners’ Hymns is available on DVD from the BFI.

The final showing of Test Dept.'s DS30, followed by a Q and A session, is at the Durham Miners' Association HQ at Redhills, Durham, at 5.45pm on Thursday 9 July (doors 5.30pm). Free entry. testdeptds30.co.uk

'The Big Meeting: A History of the Durham Miners' Gala' by Dave Temple is available from durhamminers.org

Dave Temple, Owen Jones and Sean O'Brien will be discussing how to create a juster, fairer society at the Durham Moot on Sunday 12th July at 1pm at the Palace Green Library, Durham.

The next AV Festival starts in March 2016.

Mike Quille

Mike Quille

Mike Quille had a long career in the Probation Service and is now a poet, freelance journalist and political activist living on Tyneside.

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