Towns called malice – the legacy of Thatcher

Darton blog

I WAS born into a middle class Tory voting household and to my eternal shame joined the Conservative Party at age 16.

I guess my father’s right wing doctrines influenced my own, and as a teenager and college student I followed those politics quite radically.

At 21 years old, against a left wing university backwash, I was Yorkshire vice-chairman of the Federation of Conservatives Students. I was a radical Tory, brushed shoulders with Michael Portillo, shared a whisky with former PM Ted Heath and fought hard in Thatcher’s election victory of 1979.

That remains the eternal shame of my youth.

But life is a great leveller and educator, and chalk face experiences over 38 years changed all that… it changed me as a person, socially, spiritually and politically.

In the year Thatcher was first elected, a more socially aware friend of mine warned: “There will be war in three years!”

How right she was!

In 1982 we were at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, ostensibly to liberate islanders loyal to the British Crown, but in reality because we had discovered huge reserves of oil in the South Atlantic a few years earlier.

And with Thatcher’s ratings in the opinion polls falling, there was a nothing like a bit of jingoism and nationalistic war fervour to boost Tory ratings.

But it was what I discovered years later as a newspaper journalist, which cast the Falklands War in a new light.

Not only was our prized battleship cruiser HMS Sheffield sunk while carrying nuclear depth charges, but against all international treaties to keep the South Atlantic nuclear free, Thatcher had deployed a British nuclear-armed submarine into the area.

The orders were clear: if the Argentines sunk another of our flagships, a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Cordoba was to be considered.

Just think for a minute where that might have led in 1982, at the height of the Cold War. Thatcher was prepared to risk a global Armageddon to secure her political ends.

But it was at home, where my opinions of Thatcher and her politics changed me forever.

My real education began in the early 1980s as a secondary school teacher in the South Yorkshire pit village of Darton – the home of Woolley Colliery, where NUM leader Arthur Scargill began his working life.

I lived in the village for four years among miners and their families, and many of my pupils were the sons and daughters of miners. Most of the boys were destined to become miners, and many of the girls would get jobs in businesses dependent on mining.

I played cricket each weekend with miners. My neighbours were miners. I went to football matches at Oakwell with miners. And I bought my first house from a miner.

The sound of the local pit hooter and the rattle of coal trucks woke me early each morning and the coal dust got into my clothes and my life.

But what struck me then, and has stayed with me ever since, was the sense of community and friendship which imbued every aspect of life in that village.

Life was vibrant!

If one of my charges misbehaved at school, I could be sure his or her parents would know about it, and he or she would be disciplined at home.

If I was ever ill in bed, a neighbour would knock at the door and ask if I needed any groceries or would leave a casserole of stew.

If the snow was deep we would all help clear each-others’ drives or pathways.

If anyone had a party in the street, the whole street would be invited, no exceptions. And those parties were real parties with Yorkshire beer, pies, gravy, chips and puddings.

And if my girlfriend had to walk home late at night, I wouldn’t fear for her safety.

It was a time of the greatest friendship and community I have ever known.

I moved away for misled career aspirations in 1983.

One year later, Thatcher’s brutal decision to crush the trade union movement at any cost, laid waste to this community and countless more like them.

They were never to recover.

For those not familiar with this time and place, watch the BBC TV boxed set Our Friends in the North to gain a little perspective.

All that was wonderful was lost forever due to capitalist greed and Thatcher’s need for unbridled power.

We had a nation divided against itself where the rich got richer while the rest fought for the scraps.

A whole street’s belief in Sunday’s roast beef

Gets dashed against the Co-op

To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear

It’s a big decision in a town called malice.

(Paul Weller)

My politics changed fast.

In 1988 I was in hospital in Cardiff undergoing surgery for a lung cancer.

It was a time of personal trauma, but also the making of new friendships.

Many of these friends were former miners from the South Wales valleys. Most were suffering from lung cancer due to a lifetime working among coal dust.

But it was their tales of how Thatcher crushed the miners’ strike that will always stay with me.

Some blamed Scargill for getting some of the NUM tactics wrong, but it was Thatcher they blamed for the decimation of their lives and families.

I learned how she used MI5 and the Met Police, and every dirty trick imaginable, to tarnish the personal reputations of the striking miners, even down to the conspiratorial murder of a taxi driver.

When I had fully recovered from the cancer in the mid-1990s, I travelled back to my old village near Barnsley to see how things had changed.

What met me was post-apocalyptic.

All vestiges of coal mining had gone, the shops had steel shutters on their windows, litter blew around the main street and pale youths gathered on corners with eyes that seemed devoid of hope.

The ghost of a steam train – echoes down my track

It’s at the moment bound for nowhere –

Just going round and round

Playground kids and creaking swings –

Lost laughter in the breeze

I could go on for hours and I probably will –

But I’d sooner put some joy back

In this town called malice.

(Paul Weller)

But time passes, and surely with two decades of government promises of better lives and Tony Blair’s “Things Can Only Get Better”, that despair I witnessed in 1997, must have changed.

So last weekend I returned to Darton once again, for the first time in 20 years.

In the distance the old pit heads have been replaced by rolling grassland, trees and green parkland.

To a passer-by it is picturesque… but this is nature’s illusion to mask the reality.

On the main A637 a small single business park is all that has replaced a mining industry that employed thousands in Barnsley alone.

And as I strolled round the decaying remains of the village and community I once loved, everywhere I looked brought tears to my eyes.

Long gone was Steve White the butchers, Broadheads the ironmongers, Henrietta’s dress shop, the local newsagents, the greengrocer and the launderette – a community meeting place for the miners’ wives.

Below uncleaned windows and blackened limestone walls they have been replaced with a Chinese takeaway, a tanning studio, an exotic pet store, a charity shop and boarded-up facades.

Cars and buses pass by quickly, rarely stopping on their way to somewhere else.

Only the elderly trundle along the pavement, past shops where there is nothing left to buy; walking small dogs and faces waxing grey and etched in lines of worry.

It reminded me of scenes I also witnessed in Northumberland (where my paternal grandfather and great grandfather were both miners) where three generations of families have been unemployed since 1984.

Their former pit communities have crumbled into decay, with all manner of social problems: derelict housing, rotting schools, drug dependency, street crime, high rates of teenage suicide and homelessness.

The villages remain, with three buses a day to their nearest towns and any chance of a better life, the lasting memory to Thatcher.

Thatcher’s true legacy lies in the coal dust of the communities she destroyed and the lasting fear of nuclear war.

And 38 years of Tory government (including Tony Blair’s New Labour Toryism) has ensured that the decay and legacy continues.

But the reality is there is an alternative.

That is the terrifying truth that the media, government and big business work so hard to conceal.

It the past two years, Jeremy Corbyn has woken us all to that truth and shown that alternative way forward… for the many and not the few.

  • No more forgotten communities
  • No more decay
  • No more unemployment
  • No more homelessness
  • No more scapegoating the poor
  • No more rough sleepers
  • No more fear of war

We can change the future for everyone on 8 June.

This is a journey we can all go on together, all of us. We can include everyone and fear no one.

I am voting Labour.

 

Advertisements

Darton 2017

It’s hard to believe

That this is the place

Where I was so happy long ago

The wanderer returns

And everything’s gone

Now whistling in the wind

A melancholy song

 

Oh Henrietta, where did you go?

Did time for you move quickly?

Or like me far too slow

And do you remember that love lived here?

 

The pit heads are flattened

Grass grows anew

For the benefit of the many

Or was it just the few?

Butchers and dress shop decay

Left miming like an actor

In another lost play

 

Oh Henrietta, where did you go?

Did time for you move quickly?

Or like me far too slow

And do you remember that love lived here?

 

I walk down the road

Now so empty inside

This stupid numb pain

Watching lives fill the puddles

In black water down the drain

These tumbleweed memories

The saddest refrain

 

Oh Henrietta, where did you go?

Did time for you move quickly?

Or like me far too slow

And do you remember that love lived here?

 

Darton 1981

The hooter booms

And day awakes

Coal trucks rattle past the door

Ice traces on the window pane

Memories of what went before

Coal dust in my hair

Coal dust in my nose

Coal dust in my clothes and mouth

 

Rats scurry empty

Miners huddle silently

The dawn breaks past the door

Hot tea poured in old brown mug

Memories of what went before

Coal dust in my hair

Coal dust in my nose

Coal dust in my clothes and mouth

 

Cash machine spitting

Newspapers selling

The sun rises past the door

The pit wheel turns and children run

Memories of what went before

Coal dust in my hair

Coal dust in my nose

Coal dust in my clothes and mouth

 

The day grinds on

The miners crawl in

Coke sack settles past the door

Rag man yells and women scrub

Memories of what went before

Coal dust in my hair

Coal dust in my nose

Coal dust in my clothes and mouth

 

Dinner-time snap

The kids fill a gap

Laughter lingers past the door

Coal cutters cutting and babies crying

Memories of what went before

Coal dust in my hair

Coal dust in my nose

Coal dust in my clothes and mouth

 

No one really knows

But many more fear

Rumours circulate past the door

The milk snatcher is snatching

The memories of what went before

Coal dust in my hair

Coal dust in my nose

Coal dust in my clothes and mouth

Remembering Aberfan – a personal recollection

IT was a miserable and wet Monday morning on 24 October 1966 as 300 young children were told by their class teachers to go “quickly and quietly” to the school hall for a Special Assembly.

The autumn wind and driving rain swept across the playground of this seaside primary school in Hove, as I joined my friends in the wide windowed hall.

Over the weekend our parents and flickering images on our black and white televisions made us all aware of the terrible event that had occurred three days earlier, and some 214 miles away, in the Merthyr Vale in South Wales.

On that day, 21 October 1966, a colliery spoil tip collapsed and slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan.

It engulfed Pantglas Junior School and around 20 houses. In total 144 people were killed… and 116 of them were children.

Children who were innocently attending school, just like we were in a wet but safe Sussex town.

We listened intently as our headteacher, Mr Whiting, recounted the terror of Aberfan and announced that over the course of the week the school would collect money and foodstuff to send to the families of the bereaved.

We sang hymns and after a full hour most of us left the school hall with tears reddening our small eyes.

We did not know Aberfan, but now we could find the village on a map and offer childlike solidarity with the children who were lost.

And as the years rolled by I, like thousands of others, learned more about Aberfan and the tragedy that unfolded on that grim October day, 50 years ago.

My own solidarity was hardened when I worked as a teacher in a similar mining village of Darton in South Yorkshire in the early 1980s and witnessed at first hand the grim reality and dangers of deep pit mining.

Many of my pupils left school to cut coal.

My solidarity hardened still further when in the late 1980s I was hospitalised with lung cancer in Llandough, near Cardiff.

Many of my fellow patients in the ward and at the radiotherapy clinic were former miners from the south Wales valleys and sufferers from pneumoconiosis and consequential lung cancer.

I listened at first hand to their stories of life in the pits and the betrayal of their futures and communities, first by the National Coal Board (NCB) and later by Thatcher and her minions.

So now I look back with clearer eyes and stronger solidarity at the reality of what happened in 1966.

It took just five minutes for the coal tip above Aberfan to slide down the mountain and engulf Pantglas Junior School.

The pupils were just beginning their first lessons of the day when the rushing landslide of mud and debris flooded into their classrooms.

The Aberfan disaster was not just the single most appalling event in modern British history, it also represented a multiple betrayal of a whole community.

If the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults had been the result of a tragic accident due to natural forces – what insurance companies refer to as an Act of God – it would still have been a shocking tragedy.

But the criminal negligence of the NCB in failing to remove the tip that collapsed, coupled with the callous post-disaster treatment of the community by political leaders, made the loss of life even more heart-breaking.

Unlike the Hillsborough Disaster or miscarriage of justice cases that took years of persistent campaigning before the truth was recognised, the negligent conduct of the NCB was quickly exposed.

When he was appointed to chair the tribunal inquiry that investigated the disaster, Lord Justice Edmund Davies stressed that he would not be party to a whitewash – and he was true to his word.

It said: “Blame for the disaster rests upon the NCB.

“This blame is shared among the NCB headquarters, the South Western Divisional Board, and certain individuals.

“There was a total absence of tipping policy and this was the basic cause of the disaster.”

It criticised the lack of legislation regulating the safety of tips or guidance from the Inspectorate of Mines.

And it said the “legal liability of the NCB to pay compensation… is incontestable and uncontested”.

Its conclusion was: “The Aberfan Disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above.”

But what made the negligence even worse is that from the time the tips began to accumulate there were compelling signs that they posed a significant danger.

In the years before the Aberfan disaster, complaints had been made to the NCB by local residents and by the local Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council.

On July 24, 1963 – more than three years before the disaster – a letter was sent by DCW Jones, the council’s Borough and Waterworks Engineer, to Tom Ritchie, the District Public Works Superintendent.

The letter was headed Danger from Coal Slurry being tipped at the rear of the Pantglas School.

It stated: “The NCB appear to be taking slurry similar to that which was deposited and gave so much trouble in the quarry at Merthyr Vale, up on to the existing tip at the rear of the Pantglas Schools.

“I regard it as extremely serious, as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the winter time or during periods of heavy rain.”

Mr Jones’ second letter was to D Roberts, Area Chief Mechanical Engineer for the NCB, carried the same heading and said that the Public Works Superintendent had been in touch with the Merthyr Vale Colliery manager Mr Wynne about the tipping.

He wrote: “I am very apprehensive about this matter and this apprehension is also in the minds of the local councillors and the residents in this area.

“They have previously experienced, during periods of heavy rain, the movement of the slurry to the danger and detriment of people and property adjoining the site of the tips.

“You are no doubt well aware that the tips at Merthyr Vale tower above the Pantglas area and if they were to move a very serious position would accrue.”

But the NCB took no action.

The inquiry heard there had been five incidents at three tip sites between 1939 and 1965: at Cilfynydd Colliery near Pontypridd on December 5 1939; at Aberfan Tip Number 4 on October 27 1944; at Aberfan Tip Number 5 between 1947 and 1951; at Aberfan Tip Number 7 in November 1963; and at the redundant Ty Mawr Colliery in Rhondda on March 29 1965.

Unmentioned at the inquiry was a tip slide that occurred on November 23 1960 at Parc Colliery, on the west side of the Rhondda Valley.

The South Wales Echo and Rhondda Leader reported at the time that spoil flowed down the hillside, felling a ropeway pylon as lather of waste swirled past it, strongly suggesting a flow-slide into Nant Cwm Parc.

The severe effects included a culvert on the Nant blocked with swept-down debris, the colliery surface and railway sidings flooded by water and tip waste, the evacuation of 44 families and restoration work that took 18 months to restore the railway sidings to normal use.

On an unrecorded date in 1965 this tip failed again, with evidence suggesting that a substantial outburst of groundwater probably occurred there, emanating from a buried spring.

So, between one and six years before the Aberfan disaster, the NCB had experienced serious tip failures displaying characteristics very similar to those at Aberfan.

Almost all the senior managers and engineers at divisional level at the time of the Aberfan disaster had been in post at the time of the Parc Tip failures in 1960 and 1965.

Some 30 years after the disaster, in 1996, a paper written for the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology called Rapid failures of colliery spoil heaps in the South Wales Coalfield identified 21 significant incidents over a period of 67 years to 1965.

With all these precedents, it’s difficult to explain the inertia that seemed endemic in the NCB when it came to the overriding need to safeguard the lives of people living and working beneath the tips.

Such negligence that led to the loss of so many lives is impossible to excuse.

The tips were the responsibility of a nationalised industry which was supposed to be dedicated to the collective good in mining communities which themselves were founded on the finest of humane principles.

In betraying the people of Aberfan, whose lives were cruelly dismissed as insignificant and unworthy of protection, the NCB also trashed the ideal of social solidarity on which the common ownership of the mining industry was built.

Aberfan was just one example of the huge environmental and human cost that coal extracted, and which represented the other side of coal’s significance for scores of communities from Lanarkshire and Northumberland to Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and South Wales.

The Aberfan Disaster led to a gradual but significant programme of clearing land given over to the colliery waste heaps and the tragedy played a part in the greening of the mining valleys again.

But coal has not yet been consigned to the past. Nothing has replaced the Coal mining itself might be gone but the economic impact of the failure to replace it is everywhere. Just as Aberfan was let down by the government in the 1960s, it, and mining communities across Britain, continue to feel let down by the authorities.

Earlier this year I visited the grave of Andrea, a dear friend who died in 1990 and whose family lived and worked in a neighbouring former mining village of Rassau. I also visited Aberfan.

Like my former home of Darton, both villages now hold little resemblance to the time when coal was still king. Grassing, landscaping, new housing, small industrial estates and a working class gentrification has changed the local demeanour.

Gone are the pit head wheels, gone is the black dust which clogged the air, gone is the noise of the shift claxons and gone are the coal trucks which rumbled along the lanes day and night.

They are all gone… but the memories remain.

  • A minute’s silence is being held tomorrow (Friday 21 October, 2016) to remember those killed in the Aberfan disaster.

 

Poem: 1981

The hooter booms

The day awakes

Coal trucks rattle past my door

Ice traces faces on the window pane

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

Rats scurry empty

Miners hurry silently

The dawn breaks past my door

Hot tea poured in an old tin mug

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

Cash machine spitting

Newspapers selling

The sun rises past my door

The pit wheel turns and children run

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

The day grinds on

The miners crawl in

Coal dust settles past my door

Rag man yells and old wives polish

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

Dinner-time snap

The kids full o’ spice

Laughter lingers past my door

Coal cutters cutting and babies crying

Memories of what went before.

Dust in my hair

Dust in my nose

Dust in my clothes and mouth

No one really knows

But many more fear

Rumours circulate past my door

The milk snatcher she is snatching

The memories of what went before.

(I lived in the mining village of Darton near Barnsley from 1978 to 1982. It was a thriving, happy and hard-working community. But by the end of 1984 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government had destroyed the mining industry. Darton and many other villages like it have never recovered.)