The Distorted Mirror
Three things which have interestingly coincided in Britain over the last few months are a colossal recession, the anniversary of the 1984-5 Miners Strike and the screening of the Red Riding films, the connections between which have been perhaps most succinctly pinpointed here. Although most of the curiously both laudatory-and-sceptical reviews have spent much time worrying about whether the portrayal of the West Yorkshire Police as a branch of Pinochet's Death Squads is rather hysterical, some have noticed that the only thing which truly explicates this is knowledge of what comes next in the cycle, Peace's treatment of which isn't filmed in the Channel 4 trilogy - the strike, and the attendant undeclared Civil War fought, largely in one direction, against the National Union of Mineworkers, when punishment beatings, pitched battles, phone taps, moles and the sealing of internal borders were all deployed on an extensively documented scale. Another critique of Peace hits on something more interesting, that his books have to add a layer of diabolical evil on top of the historical evils they fictionalise. So John Poulson, ultra-corrupt Leeds architect, is reimagined as developer and paedophile John Dawson, as if the actual crimes weren't enough. Similarly, at the edges of GB84's refracted versions of Scargill and Thatcher (but mainly David Hart and Roger Windsor) are severed heads in boxes, ritual suicides, 'mountains of skulls', again to amplify the existing horror of the destruction of communities, the destruction of trade unionism, the decisive victory of neoliberalism that becomes in the novel 'the end of the world - the end of all our worlds'.
In the televisual Red Riding this approach is mostly convincing, but loses something through the absence of the final confrontation that ends the cycle. Still, Peace's claim that his fictions uncover the truth through their fictionalisation of the truth should be taken seriously. By turning it into a horrific tragedy - a South Yorkshire Dos Passos thrown into conjunction with the diabolical evil of a particularly lurid Giallo and a beer-and-sandwiches re-imagining of Eliot's Waste Land - GB84 says far more about the strike, especially through the 'diary' sections, clearly based on diaries of actual striking miners, which are the most frightening, intense, heartbreaking and finest pieces of English prose since, oh, the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition, than its recently published first history. Obviously Beckett and Hencke couldn't be expected to write something as ferocious and as economical with the actualite as Peace's work, but their flat prose and matter-of-fact listing of dates and negotiations reduces the grand canvas promised by their subtitle - 'The Death of Industrial Britain' - into a drab diagram.
In the small hours, the thieves' hours, with their knives of Sheffield Steel/Among the bodies of the animals, the Circle of the Tyrants kneel/To hear her beat her bloody wings, in her new and lonely Reich/Herr Lucifer! Herr Thatcher!/Beware, Beware, she will eat you like air/Beware, Beware, the Pits of despair/There is a man who bought his council house and drives an Austin Princess/he has a dark room and a very good stereo - '
David Peace, GB84
Nonetheless, there's a wealth of information in their history, some given more significance than is deserving, but some of it enormously telling. There are a fair few details in the book which I didn't get the space to mention in my NS review, and which are worth mentioning here. Irrespective of the extreme hostility to Scargill that eventually makes an otherwise very sober and scrupulous book impossible to take seriously (it ends with the hysterical argument that Scargill lost the 1992 election for Labour) Beckett and Hencke haven't written a book that is hostile to trade unionism, something missed by some reviewers. In fact, the real significance of Scargill, for them, is that he wasn't a conventional trade unionist. This is not to say that he wasn't utterly committed to trade unionism's workerism and protest methods of strikes and forceful pickets, but that he was a syndicalist among Labourists, a Barnsley Wobbly determined to break with the patient collective bargaining and focus on 'our members' of British trade unionism. And, although his Socialist Labour Party would prove to be a stillborn Stalinist sect, they don't distrust him for being a Communist. Communists were sensible people like Mick McGahey, who knew when to compromise. In short, Scargill was for them a soixante-huitard, and hence a foreign body in British trade unionism.
They write of 'a new, sharp-toothed left-wing...young men who were born in the late 1940s and early 1950s and saw their politics through the distorting mirror (my italics) of 1968. For them, New Jerusalem was just around the corner, its arrival impeded only by cautious, reactionary, elderly trade union leaders, with their fatal addiction to compromise...The new left's heroes had to be young, and attractive, and fluent and charismatic, and preferably charismatic, but most of all they had to be impossible to outflank on the left...Scargill fitted the bill perfectly.' This reaches surreal heights. Rather than a dinosaur in desperate need of a stylist, Beckett and Hencke's Scargill is glamorous, sexy even. 'Scargill was a new sort of Union leader. There was a razzmatazz about him that was entirely different to the grey, elderly men in grey suits muttering 'I 'ave to consult my executive committee' who mostly led the unions. He was new, exciting, he had carefully coiffured hair and neat suits and apparently an ocean of self-confidence'. In a sense, then, these are the worst fears of Stalinists, Labourites and Tories combined - a working class 68er, a proletarian syndicalist with massive power at his disposal. It makes a great deal of sense, and totally reverses the received Monty Python's Yorkshiremen/Hovis Advert version of the Strike, as does Peace in a more occult manner. While the novelist sees the strike through the distorted mirror of Sheffield postpunk, crime fiction, high modernism and the Book of Revelation, the historians see it through the prism of a new left, hell-bent on creating a new society by force.
'Dear Mr Daly, How much would you like for your soul? It's the only thing you have left, we have heard. No wife, no wage, nothing left now. We want to help you avoid aggro and intimidation. So here is a little tear-off slip and a first-class freepost return envelope. Please enclose your fucking soul. Remember, no stamp needed.'
In both cases, the significance of 84-85 and of Scargill is a (failed) breaking of the rules of the game. There was a part of the Left that wanted to break with Butskellism as much as did Thatcher, while now received wisdom imagines it as trapped in the past. If you'll excuse my lapsing into prolier-than-thou, my old man is/was a trade unionist who was formed more by 1968 than 1926, and even now remembers the strike as 'a very exciting time to be a lefty', rather than a doomed march to defeat. More specifically, he was involved with Southampton Trades Council, helping to make sure that no coal entered the port, and this - amongst other stories my parents have always told about the strike, like the South Wales miner who gave a 20p piece to my baby sister, a hell of a lot of money in that particular context, or other stories like dodgy vegetable curries cooked for aforementioned Welsh miners - also makes me decidedly sceptical of their other substantial point, supplementary to the excoriation of Scargill. That this adventurist, far-left, absolutist strike was never really seriously supported by the labour movement as a whole. While there were certainly a fair few quislings, the impression I have always got - not just from people I know, but from histories, including Beckett and Hencke's, inadvertently - was of solidarity invariably scuppered by leadership. This ranges from the support promised and undelivered by the TUC and Labour Party conferences to more decisively the strike of NACODS, the foremen's union, which would almost undoubtedly have turned the tide, and which was voted for by an overwhelming majority of its members then thrown away by its leadership.
'Khaki shirt. Sergeant stripes. Badges. Insignia. The lot. - Clear as fucking day. I'm telling you, that weren't first time, either. That were never just police at Orgreave. Never'
The book sets great stall by the diaries of the printworkers' leader Bill Keys. These are undeniably very interesting indeed, and certainly suggest that, by spring 1985, Scargill was losing his grip. Yet even in amongst Keys' attempts to broker compromises, there are other assertions they consider irrelevant. Near the end, they quote Keys' final entries, as the strike is decisively defeated, lambasting the ego of a certain union leader, but also asking 'when is our class going to learn that it is only total unity that can protect our interests?' Beckett and Hencke obviously don't consider this question worthwhile, or they wouldn't have written an apologia for those who refused to provide unity or solidarity. Yet there's another potential unity which is terrifying for both soft-left historians and neoliberals alike - the unity of the 'left' which aims at the destruction of existing society and the left as organised labour. The possibility of a grass-roots movement that would also be an extreme, uncompromising movement. Beckett and Hencke often sneer at Scargill's claim that there was a victory 'in the struggle itself', that it was in a sense its own reward - and there is an element of truth in their argument that this might seem scant consolation when your community has been decimated - but the wider truth in Scargill's statement is completely ignored.
The support campaigns around the Miners' strike were genuinely unprecedented, from Women against Pit Closures (mentioned by Beckett and Hencke only in their claim that they must have embarassed the patriarchal miners) to the widespread support shown by gay, or anti-racist, or otherwise extraparliamentary groups. The police tactics meant that, as one of the diarists in GB84 mentions, those normally expected to be 'small c' conservative felt a solidarity with, say, the Brixton and Toxteth rioters, knew what they must have gone through. This situation, where the most militant wing of labour found itself shafted by the TUC and the Labour Party but embraced by the extraparliamentary left (of various kinds) suggested, in embryo, a new kind of politics, not the final battle of a dying workerism. The fear of this kind of unity is also why today, seemingly small and rather melodramatic groups are being quarantined by police away from 'mainstream' demonstrations - because of the possibility of infection, that their ideas might catch. What is still feared, most of all now that the old rules no longer apply, is the seemingly unlikely possibility of something new that doesn't play the game, rather than a careful return to Butskellism. This is what was so scary about the Miners Strike. Not that it was the last gasp of the past, but that it suggested something new. Not just that they were uncompromising, but that they could have won.