© Russell Whitehead photography
Footprints of a strike (2011)
(Photography by Sai Kumar)
The lift door thuds shut into darkness. "Go on" the Wakefield miner
shouts. With a jolt and a thud, the wheel mechanisms turn
descending us deep into the earth. Stephan Oxley, turns his hat light
on piercing the darkness. 900 feet down we go. We turn our lights on
in response. I'm operating the video camera for a friend and
colleague Sai Kumar, who is also taking the photography for this
documentary. The lift seems to be descending relatively quickly as we
see the variable earth levels like one of those diagrams they use in
school showing the progress of soil to the earth's core. The ducking
and diving begins as we reach the bottom through narrow and low
archways in pitch black all apart from our headlights and the
occasional wall light, which seems ominous in such black.
We are visiting the Wakefield Mining Museum to reflect on the infamous strikes, which began in 1984. The museum was an active mine and the employees are previous miners who now provide the services of guide and experts mostly to school excursions.
The further we ventured, the further it felt like an abolition from earth though really we were getting further into it. Stephan guides us through and says how the mine used to operate with various great drilling machines left abandoned, obsolete, yet formidable enough and are still able to break through anything in its path. The absence of light seems to be replaced by tremendous noise as he turns on the generator. In a bleak narrow path we almost have to crawl through he states, "there were 3 union boards, The NUM (National Union of Miners) was the biggest but the problems started when some when some went back to work." His words slightly echo in the narrow tunnel blindness, giving us a focus of sound barely without any vision. "If we went for consultation, compromise with other unions, rather than conflict, I think we would have saved something of the industry."
"We burn about a million tons of coal per week, vast majority we now get in from abroad. It would only take 20-30 collieries to make that up. Of course supporting industries would also be kept employed."
As we arrived that early morning the staffroom is full or numerous
walls of keys, safety hats and a budgie. The budgie dying is an historical
warning of escaping gas. Mick Green sits on the side of desk with his tea
ready to put his point across. "As for the strikes, our principles were that
we were fighting for this country and when she dies, when Margret
Thatcher dies, I've got a bottle whiskey here, and I’m going to have one
good drink to celebrate that she'll be burning somewhere. Evil horrible
woman." All the miners we interview seem to harbour strong feelings
against Thatcher, though differ quite considerably when it comes to the
unions of the strikes, and in particular Arthur Scargill. Mick continues,
"Arthur Scargill is a fantastic brilliant bloke, the only thing wrong was
that he didn't have enough tact to deal with the Government. That’s why people didn't like him." This is in direct conflict with Davey Gerndt, a miner we later interview in a museum machine gallery. "There was too big a gulf between Scargill and Thatcher, but we've learnt after the unions members seems to have done alright after it all."
Mick continues, "Thatcher taken out all our natural resources in export until it was gone, then we have to buy it from somewhere else. If we don't buy locally it’s like taking the plug out. She ought to be done for treason." There did seem to be an intention to reduce the unions which the Government seen as too powerful. There were previous coal miner’s strikes though this time reserves were accumulated and a lot of home supplies were turning to gas and electric. Unions insisted that there were media slur campaigns to sway public opinion. "People were persuaded it was also bad for the environment even though clean coal technology was invented yet brushed under the carpet. It was next to Grimethorpe colliery, it contained all the impurities then could recycle them for further use. Thatcher closed that just before we went on strike.
Davey argues, "Looking back we shouldn't have gone on strike. We got led into it quite falsely. I picketed as long as I could until I got banned from leaving my home due a police curfew, 12 hours per day I had to stay home... The unions didn't do much for us either. We lost our houses, we got food hampers from the Russian Miners." Part of the media slur campaign aligned Scargill with Russian and Libyan terrorist groups. Davey continues, "I got married just before the crisis, then my brother went back to work, I haven't spoken to him since." As they think back to memories of that time they talk sombrely in decreasing tones as if in morning for the things that has passed. My colleague Sai asks him what should they have done looking back? "We should have had a work to rule. But Scargill has done all right hasn't he. He got paid throughout the strike and now lives in a rich area of London. Bitter pill to swallow." The division between the miners of what happened and what should have happened is still evident though it is obvious that it was a bleak time of hardship. "I once got arrested 23 times in a week, charged with nothing… What would I change? Well, it’s easy to look back, I know." Davey finishes.
With Stephan leading, we reach the end of the tunnels when the
miners stopped digging all those years ago. We can see the coal in
front and the wooden supports in place ready to venture forward.
He gives me a piece of coal to take home. It found it strangely
fascinating even though I’ve touched coal on the surface before.
I said to Stephan that I was already forgetting about sunlight.
"Yeah, its kind of peaceful isn't it." After a while it did feel like the
sun was never going to be seen again, or down here you would
never have known that it existed. A strange peace.