Our day out at the Durham Miners’ Gala

Geoff Bright, Max Munday and myself, Mark James as part of the ‘ Working with Social Haunting’ team joined the Unite Community coach from Sheffield to go up to “ The Big Meet” otherwise known as the Durham Miners Gala. Held every year in July the Big Meet is a tradition which goes back many years where the ‘lads and lasses’ in the pit villages of County Durham gather in the city to engage in much merriment and listen to the odd political speech. Brass Bands from the different pit lodges gather on the outskirts of Durham to enter the city proudly in front of a National Union of Mineworkers banner. In the heart of Durham the marchers stop to do a ‘twirl’ in front of the assembled dignitaries of the trade union of labour movement who are standing on a terrace of the County Hotel. The marchers then proceed to the old racecourse where there are fairground rides, political stalls as well as the speakers’ stage. Needless to say much beer is drunk and there is a fabulous carnival atmosphere. But this year was different, very different indeed. Quite how and why it was different can only be hinted at here but in describing our day out I will sketch some ideas.

We had arranged for the New Victoria Theatre in Staffordshire to have a space in the Unite the Union marquee in Durham. Working with the ‘Community Tarot Cards’, the New Vic were doing a ‘Ghost Lab’. My job was to ensure that the coach of Unite Community members from Sheffield, Barnsley and Leeds would get up to Durham and hopefully get back. We set off from Hallam University at 7.30 am sharp, after picking up in Barnsley at the NUM HQ and near the Unite building in Leeds we proceeded up the A1. The mood on the coach was expectant. Unite Community draws together a wide range of activists from different groups. We had representatives from the ‘Sheffield needs a pay rise’ campaign,  South Yorkshire Migrant Aid and Action Group, Sheffield Mental Health Action Group, Housing Activists, Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, Sheffield Trees Action, local Labour Party activists and members of the Socialist Party. You could hear vibrant discussions take place as folk got more excited as we approached Durham.

As we proceeded north, if I got the chance, my eyes would glance out of the coach window. The North is portrayed as dour, de-industrialised and left behind. Yet the landscape outside once we left the cities behind was beautiful and incandescent in the morning sun, a brightness that reflected the mood on the coach. Perhaps I wondered there are no ghosts or if there were they have been exorcised by some new force, yet to be identified or explained.

On arrival in Durham most of the coach joined one of the feeder marches with flags flying high. The Ghost Labs team enjoyed a pleasant walk by the river and snuck into the Unite marquee, avoiding the crowds. I will leave it to Geoff to reflect on the Ghost Lab, but I want to consider the crowd: how huge it was. Last year there had been 150,000 at the gala, this year dwarfed it. Official reports say at least 200,000 people were there. My view was that it was on a different scale entirely. And the difference was not just quantitative, there was a qualitative shift that was easily discernible. Last year there had been at best an ambiguity about Jeremy Corbyn: his speech had had a mixed response. This year the bands were playing ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ at every possible interlude, the crowd were singing his name as well. His speech went down well but there is more. I sensed a confidence, a belief that change is possible. I met activists not just from Durham and the north but also as far afield as Birmingham. Members of Unite reported the same as we all started to work out how we all knew each other and reflect on what had brought us to the gala. I was heartened to meet while recruiting to the Ghost Lab a former colleague who reminisced on how we used to make Headteachers’ lives hell as radical NUT activists in Nottinghamshire. The joy of not conforming a generation ago was being re-invented for today.

In the just published New Left Review Tom Hazledine talks about the “Revolt of the Rustbelt”.  Quoting Vernon Bogdanov who suggest “the regions are ghosts” Hazledine suggests that the North might now be haunting the the rich and powerful of the UK by voting for Brexit and then paradoxically Corbyn. At the end of the article Hazledine reminds us of what Carlyle wrote in the wake of the 1842 Chartist general strike that started in Manchester where there was  a “fatal paralysis spreading inwards , from the extremities.” If the Durham Miners’ Gala looked like anything it looked like a Chartist Rally. Perhaps we could have been on Hartshead Moor between Huddersfield and Halifax listening to ‘Orator’ Hunt and picking our way through the latest edition of the ‘Northern Star’. It seems too early to suggest that we are in the midst of a social and political shift as radical as the Chartist movement but I am going to take the risk.

I wonder in allowing the Ghosts to speak we are exercising our demons. There was a mood in Durham that was unlike anything I have sensed before. It was not like any of the People’s Assemblies marches that I have been on. It was not like the huge anti Iraq war march of February 2003. It was much more working class, maybe even more visceral. There was plenty of affect, affect building into a wave with the banners of the past marching into the future to something new.

We all safely got back onto the bus and headed south. Some people snoozed, others tried to rehydrate, and some carried on the discussions. I have never sensed activists feeling so confident, so energised and so impassioned. We dropped folk in Leeds and Barnsley then went on to Sheffield. 12 hours after leaving some of us slipped into one of the dens of the Sheffield left, the Rutland. As we walked to the pub I wondered where this will all end. Will the Ghosts be laid to rest and will we march into the dawn? Or will something wicked come our way? As went into the pub Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs” blasted out: “Generals gathered in our masses, just like witches at black masses…”I thought of Chile where nearly 50 years ago a gentleman Salvador Allende became a prime minister on a modest reform programme and 3 years later died in a bitter military coup. If we are looking for ghosts there is no shortage of them. There are signs and portents everywhere.

Many thanks to: Sue and the team from the New Vic. John Coan and Rose Ridley from Unite for liaising with us all to enable the latest Ghost Lab to be a success. Great to meet Geoff and Brenda from Ribbon Road again. Thanks to Max and Geoff for the non-stop discussions!

Mark JamesComment