One of the ghosts…
In this final piece that I write for the social haunting blog, I want take the opportunity to invite my mother in as some kind of spectral witness to the work that we’ve been doing – to see if it, as it were, passes muster, through me, for her. My mother, Harriet Limb, born in one of the two slummy ‘pit rows’ in a Derbyshire pit village, Langwith, in Derbyshire in 1916, would have been 100 years old this year. In fact, she died on May Day in 1996 after a three year long decline at the hands of Alzheimer’s, lost in ferocious rebellion against some on-going grievance in the darkness inside her head. May Day was appropriate, as was the fighting against a now blurred injustice. Although only party political in later life – she joined the Labour Party in her late 60s during the 1984-85 strike – she was instinctively and ferociously partisan all her life, in that way that only coalfield lives made men and women partisan.
She knew all the milestone struggles, being five years old in the 1921 lockout and ten in the 1926 Miners’ Strike that followed the General Strike (after what, for her, remained always an ‘unforgivable’ betrayal by the TUC). She had cheered Arthur Cooke, the radical miners’ leader, at strike meetings in her village as a kid and as one of nine children of a father who was, she would proudly declare, “the last men back” after the ‘26 strike, knew the soup kitchens and told stories of the Coalowners’ victimisation of strikers. She also knew and remained embittered about the humiliating visits of the ‘Means Test man’ and the hunger of those families that didn’t, like hers, have a lad or lass working on a farm. Perhaps more complexly, she remained utterly contemptuous of anybody who dared even consider ‘blacklegging’ (strike breaking), as she called it, even as her narrow pit village snobberies and ‘ambition by proxy’ pushed – and I mean pushed! – my laisez faire father into ‘night school’ during the 1950s and on the path to a colliery official’s job. Even though his ‘doing well’ had been her creation, she reverted, after he died, to a rampant Scargellite “red ragger” that served her to the end of her days as a frustrated expression of her temperamental pugnacity. And she loved the 1984-85 strike Almost – but not quite – as much as she hated Thatcher!
In ‘service’ from 13, she knew parsimonious employers who ‘tested’ the girls by leaving money on the floor to see if it ‘disappeared’. But she also worked through the 30s for a left-wing bohemian family who entertained all the progressive literati of the time and, while travelling the world on one jaunt or another, left her to look after their children in what for her was a time of complete and glorious freedom that she always cherished. Briefly free of the tyranny of the gender division of labour during the war years, she worked as a railway platelayer before falling back into a post-war life of frustrated domesticity. Always, after World War 2, a ‘housewife’ in traditional pit village mode, she harboured a massive, resentful ambition to break through the crushing limitations of what Doreen Massey has called the masculinist pit village ‘ideology of virility’. But with only a very basic education, she didn’t know where to start. The 84-85 strike was a blossoming for her in many ways, as she could express herself in her own way, without having to seek anyone’s permission – particularly any man’s permission!
What would she have made of ‘social haunting’? Well, she
would have ‘got it’, that’s for sure. She made sure I knew who the ghosts were,
and what they were trying to tell us, even before I went to school. And she
would have been stunned that the industry – employing around a million when she
was born – and the way of life and politics it spawned, could have finally
ended. She was a Bennite through the 1980s and would have definitely been a rather
superannuated ‘Corbyinista’ now (and I suspect might have been having a whale
of a time on the demos with me). I think she might have thought our project was
a little bit too airy-fairy for her liking, and us trying to work with ‘visions
of utopia’ might have taxed her earth-bound realism just too far (she was a
physical grafter who could work my coal miner, ex wartime special forces, old
man into the ground). She wasn’t intellectually subtle – unlike my father, who
was – and saw things in very simple terms without a smidgin of doubt: always be in the union, never scab, always fight the bosses. In fact, fight anybody who tries to do you
down (as I said, not a subtle woman)!Anyway, here she is, with with her sharp and rather unforgiving
eye on me, on what I do in my work, and on whose interest it serves. One of the
ghosts – my mother, Harriet Limb.