[ bookreviews ]
This time 20 years ago the miners' strike was raging. The morning radio news was full of flying pickets and pitched battles between miners and police; the evening television dominated by images of the same. Names of places such as Cortonwood, Ollerton and Orgreave were burned into the consciousness forever, simply because we heard them so often. Cortonwood, where it all started when the National Coal Board announced the Yorkshire pit's arbitrary closure in the first week of March 1984. (Within days it became clear that this was part of a much larger pit-closure programme.) Ollerton, the Nottinghamshire mining village where the strike claimed its first fatality, when a young miner was killed in a crush between pickets and police during the second week of the strike. Orgreave, the Yorkshire coking plant then vital to Britain's electricity supply, where the miners tried to repeat their famous 1972 victory, when they succeeded in closing down a similar plant at Saltley, Birmingham by mass picketing. This time it didn't work.
The miners were lured to Orgreave from South Wales, Kent, Durham, Yorkshire, Scotland and elsewhere in their tens of thousands on a beautiful June day to face the massed power of the British state: thousands of police with horses, dogs and riot gear, ready willing and able to turn the miners back. From that day on we all knew something had changed. This wasn't 1972 or 74. There'd be no easy victory. And in the end, which didn't come until March 1985 - a whole year after the strike started - there was no victory at all. The miners went back without a settlement, their union's power broken, their industry about to be destroyed.
David Peace's novel GB84, which he describes as "a fiction, based on fact", charts the course of the strike from the optimism of the early days, through the pitched battles of the summer to the slowly dawning reality of total defeat. Peace uses a traditional, linear narrative structure interspersed with extracts from the diaries of two miners, Martin and Peter. And much of the time it works. Younger readers for whom it has only ever been ancient history would certainly get at least an idea what the miners' strike was like. Peace writes in an accessible style, without in any sense trying to dumb complex issues down. And he provides us with more than the bare documentary facts. Indeed, GB 84 brings that apocalyptic year more credibly back to life than many an earnest but dead-in-the-mouth speech at many a far-left meeting. It makes the strike human again by giving the reader a real sense of the emotions it stirred, as the high hopes of activists and trade unionists everywhere turned so bitterly into their opposite.
GB84 is divided into five chapters, each of which has a title of its own; the first four - 'Ninety-nine red balloons', 'Two Tribes', 'Careless Whisper' & 'There's a world outside your window and it's a world of dread and fear' - are all references to popular songs of the time. No doubt some will complain that Peace is trivialising such a momentous event by naming a chapter in a book about it after a song written by George Michael. (I have to say though that for some strange reason I personally have always found it useful to know what was in the charts the year a particular event happened. Knowing, say for example, that T-Rex were in the charts the year Ireland joined the EEC, or that Renée and Renato had their one hit wonder 'Save Your Love' the year the Falklands War happened somehow makes those events seem more rather than less real. Sad, I know. But true.) With the title of the last chapter 'Terminal, or the Triumph of the Will' Peace leaves such frivolity behind, and everything is suddenly deadly serious.
For me, the best writing in the whole novel are the two extracts from Martin's diary in the last chapter. On day 364 of the strike, when more than 50 per cent of the miners have drifted back to work, and the National Executive of the NUM have voted by 98-91 to recommend a return to work without a settlement, Martin summons up the ghosts of all the previous generations of miners whose struggles made the tradition which Thatcher succeeded in decisively trampling into the dirt:
"The Dead that carried us from far to near. Through the villages of the Damned, to stand beside us here. Under their banners and their badges. In their branches and their bands - Their muffled drums. Their muted pipes - That whisper. That echo - Their funeral marches. Their funeral music - That moans. That screams - Again and again. For ever more - As if they are marching their way up out of their graves. Here to mourn the new dead - The country deaf to their laments."
In many ways the tempo of GB84 resembles that of a symphony, and the extract quoted above is part of its catastrophic crescendo. The black pessimism of the defeated strike is, in a sense, the flip-side of the near hubris of its early days:
"Motion to back strike is proposed. Motion is seconded. Motion is backed 100 per cent - Folk head off to Hotel or Club. Lot of talk about '72 and '74. I'm having a piss in Club when this bloke says to me, It'll be right then? I say, How do you mean? We'll win? He says. Yeah, I tell him. What you worried about?"
Generally speaking, Peace weighs the significance of different events well. One criticism I would have though is that, in a couple of places, his narrative is laced with just a little too much fatalism. Clearly, by Christmas 1984 the miners were doomed. But between March and October it was by no means certain that Thatcher was going to prevail. Peace downplays the significance of Arthur Scargill's mistake in not calling a national ballot, by having one of his characters - an almost satanic government advisor referred to throughout the book as "the Jew" - talk in March '84 about "the very unlikely event of a national ballot and... even unlikelier event of a vote for strike." Now, this is simply wrong.
All the evidence is that the overwhelming majority of miners and their families supported the strike at this stage. And, if anything, support for the strike increased during the spring and summer as more miners and their wives became more actively involved, and the strike gained the sympathy of a wide coalition of people in every corner of Britain: everyone from traditional trade-unionists to the Sikh community in Birmingham to gay and lesbian groups in London and Brighton. The miners received money collected by sympathisers worldwide; even receiving cheques from such non-proletarian sources as Elizabeth Taylor and, the American billionaire, John Paul Getty.
If there was a national ballot anytime between April and August, when 80 per cent of miners were on strike, it's a racing certainty that the ballot would have endorsed the strike. And this would have given the strike added legitimacy, which would certainly have persuaded many of those in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere, who continued to work, to join the strike. The miners' tradition was to have a national ballot when the issue was national strike action; there were national ballots in both 1972 and 1974. And not to have had one in 1984 was a major strategic error brought about, at least in part, because of the top-down, bureaucratic socialism of Miners' Union President Arthur Scargill. The miners may still not have won if there'd been a ballot, but they would certainly have had a much better chance.
Another window of possibility David Peace downplays a little is the threatened strike action by NACODS, the union which represented pit-deputies, who were responsible for pit safety, and without whom no mine could legally stay open. They voted for strike 82%-18% in October '84. If implemented, this would have meant every working miner in Britain being sent home. After seven months the strike would finally (if only by default) be 100 per cent solid. With a NACODS strike still threatened, Peace has the aforementioned government advisor 'the Jew' confidently ranting:
"there must be no further negotiations. There must be no further promises of no compulsory redundancies. There must be no amnesty and no jobs for any miners convicted of criminal offences. The times have changed..."
At that stage outright victory was probably beyond the miners' grasp, but the likelihood has to be that, if NACODS walked out and stayed out, there would have been some sort of fudge. Thatcher would not have claimed her famous victory. And everyone would have lived to fight another day. However, the national executive of NACODS called off their strike at the last minute, and the rest is history.
Peace does a good job, though, of illustrating the sheer ruthlessness of the Thatcher government. On page 253 he has 'The Jew', whose actual name is Stephen Sweet, draw up a strategy to entice striking miners back to work:
"The Jew wants a copy of the entire payroll for the National Coal Board. The Jew wants every miner's name checked against police and county court records - The Jew wants weaknesses- Men who have transferred to their pit. Men who live a distance from their pit - Men who are married. Men divorced. Men who have children. Men who can't - Men who have mortgages. Men who have debts - Men who used to work a lot of overtime. Men who used to have a lot of money - Men who have weaknesses. Age. Sex. Drink. Theft. Gambling. Money. The Jew wants lists."
Two things really irritated me about this mostly enjoyable book. The first was the constant reference to this government advisor as 'The Jew'. Only a couple of times in 462 pages is he referred to Stephen Sweet. I could see no reason for this, other than self-indulgence (or perhaps an attempt at sensationalism) on the part of the author. The second was the gangster subplot, which is so obviously a tacked-on afterthought (perhaps designed to widen the book's appeal?) that it's actually possible to read the rest of the book without bothering with the sub-plot at all.
So, GB84 is an imperfect book rather than any sort of masterpiece. But it has enough going for it to make it worthwhile. And it obviously has particular significance for those on the Left. It charts the progress of a battle, which in the words of Michael Eaton - the all too real Saatchi & Saatchi advisor appointed by Thatcher to advise the Coal Board - was the "decisive occasion in recent British history when the right won and the left lost." It took some on the left years to come to terms with the gravity of this defeat. When Thatcher resigned six years later, the bulk of her agenda had been carried out. The Miner's Strike was the decisive point when Thatcherism might have been stopped, but wasn't. Her victory ended a long period of heightened class conflict in Britain, which had started with the struggle against the Heath Tory government in the early 197Os; and created in its place a world fit for New Labour and Michael O'Leary of Ryanair. It also allowed Thatcher to become a credible icon for those advocating the restoration of the free market in Eastern Europe. From Poland to Dublin Airport the after-effects of the miners' defeat can still be seen. It was in a sense the event which, more than any other, gave birth to the world we all now live and work in.