Sunday, 25 July 2010


The Odd Couple Rides Again:

Of Joe Gormley, the General Secretary of the NUM, the retired miner Dave Douglass writes: 'the Daily Express, had christened him “The Battered Cherub”, and there was much of a Jimmy Clitheroe character in him, just a working-class, no-bullshit lad from Lancashire ... Joe was a giant of the miner's union too, albeit on the right... He carried the common-sense pit wit in his bones and battered the at times weak-kneed intellectual concerns and phraseology of the left. Arthur [Scargill], serious and straight-laced, a bit pompous, was Joe's favourite sparring partner, who he met with 'common sense' practicality. He managed to create an impression of being the true working-class spokesperson [sic] and Arthur some popinjay with his head in the clouds.' Dave gives us an 'hilarious sequence where Sid Vincent, his Lancashire soulmate, is trying to move a vote of thanks to him, and Joe keeps bouncing comments back, not least because he is describing a time when they slept in the same bed, “I had me pants on”, Joe interjects.'
(see verbatim record in the minutes of the 6th, July 1981 of the Annual Conference.)
GHOST DANCERS by David John Douglass price £12.95 from Christie Books PO Box 35, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 1ZS.

Lugging my luggage up the steps at Doncaster railway station I spotted a very dapper Dave Douglass, wearing a white top and black tee-shirt, stood beside his new red Hyundai - a scrappage scheme job - looking grand with a ruddy face and well controlled hair style. Then we were off on the road to Tolpuddle to commemorate the Martyrs, via a detour round the one-way streets of Bristol. Dave, I should point out, has an awfully unhealthy relationship with his 'stat-nav' which has a seductive woman's voice: he talks to her as we drive along. I think he trusts her more than me or any other human being.

Dave, a retired coal miner and former NUM leader with those squat blond Viking looks of the North-East, was there to give a talk on his new book – the third volume of his mammoth autobiography entitled 'Ghost Dancers: The Miners' Last Generation' - invited to address the Radical History School by that charmer from the South-West; his fellow revolutionary syndicalist, Dave Chapple, who has Welsh ancestors and who stalks around left-wing trade union circles like an Celtic athlete. Dave Chapple, gets his exercise as a part-time postman, while Dave Douglass does physical jerks to keep himself in trim: what a pair they make; the tall, rude Celtic charmer and the thick set ruddy-faced Viking from the North East.

Hoisting his new 'Made in China' tent Dave brought represented a bit of a challenge when it was struck last Thursday night by freak 80-mile-an-hour gales off the English Channel. As I watched him worming his supple body in-and-out of the tent flap I thought of him down't some dark pit slithering through a coal seam: in fact my mind I couldn't help but think of his talents in relation to other holes as well. So naturally close to the surface of the earth was he; after all he'd spent half his life underneath it like some Norwegian Troll in an Ibsen play. How I envied his easy movements which to me as an electrician, use to stretching up on ladders, struck me as utterly wonderful. Last weekend, Dave was down there on his first visit to the Tolpuddle Festival keen to get cracking pushing the latest volume of his massive 3-volume autobiography. At over 500 pages published by Christie Books 'Read & Noir' it represents a giant among pygmies in the publishing world and is going to set him back a chunk of his miner's pension to put on the market.

In the book he coins the term 'Pitracide' to introduce the idea of what he says is 'Nothing more or less than ethnic cleansing is evidenced in the abandoned and forgotten coalfield communities the length and breadth of Britain.' He even has the audacity to compare the fate of the miners historically with that of the North American Indians and the Palestinians – 'without of course the mass murder, with the same social and political design.' He argues passionately that '[t]he miners' roots under the land run as deep as those of the hill farmers or shepherds who worked above it, or the fisherfolk who sailed the coasts' and claims '[m]any mining families in mining regions stretched back to pre-Norman times, and the language of those regions was the ancient dialect of Angle and Saxon, often shot through with Norse, or Britannic tongue which had predated the arrival of the English.' He then goes on in challenging style to write that '[t]hese were the last surviving direct ancestors of the island's ancient inhabitants, who took their ancient twang below ground where it continued for hundreds of years as in philological lost world.'

The question here, that a Marxist historian like Eric Hobsbawm might ask, is that Dave is simply engaged in 'inventing tradition'? like the nationalists have done with the kilt in Scotland (which Hobsbawm claims was really invented in the textile town of Clitheroe or was it somewhere around Blackburn in Lancashire: Dave on this trip, I should tell you, insisted to me that the kilt came from Northumbria, not Scotland). Or are we here – with the British miners - talking of what Benedict Anderson called an 'Imagined Community'? Dave is defiant: 'Pitracide was waged against the miners, who were in many ways almost an ethnic minority, not simply the practitioners of a trade or a skill – an ancient tradition, a way of life, of speech, of outlook, of community and solidarity.' Dave rages on: 'We have witnessed the massacre of a people's whole way of life.' Concluding on the romantic note: 'This book has been written as part of the continuing last stand of that people who – as at the annual festival of a far-flung ancient tribe – dance on, defiant in the face of their exterminators, refusing to disappear or conform to the social design of our masters.'

I had my balls chewed off after Dave's talk after I'd suggested that he kept using the word 'strategy' to describe the reactions of the miners to the program of Thatcher and her Ridley Plan when he was really talking about the 'tactics' they used responding to the Government and the Coal Board. I argued that in some ways the NUM miners in the 1980s were more backward than the South Wales miners who produced 'The Miners' Next Step' in that they had no serious answer to the establishment save to protect and preserve the status quo. At the time and later after the meeting both Dave Douglass and Dave Chapple took great exception to this. Dave Douglass kept telling me that the British miners had been the most 'revolutionary' element of our working class and I kept saying they were 'the most militant' element because they didn't have an serious practical alternative agenda: they didn't have a plan for taking over the pits for instance.

This case was reinforced the next day when Dave Chapple gave a talk on entitled 'A Revolutionary Centenary? The Cambrian Combine Strike, Tonypandy Riots [of 1910] & “The Miners' Next Step”.' Dave Chapple was trying to make out that this was a revolutionary moment in which these Welsh miners and their union overnight transformed themselves from a conciliatory force into a revolutionary body or perhaps proto-revolutionary. His use of the word 'Riot' was, I later realised, a slap in the face to the Bristol Radical History Group, which he seems to despise in some way owing to their emphasis on topics such as the Captain Swing Riots, local suffragettes and the Slave Trade in Bristol and not on trade union issues. At a meeting of this Radical History Group, Dave Chapple had asked why they had produced some 14 booklets dedicated to local history topics and that they hadn't done anything on trade unionism. The pamphlet I bought entitled 'Tolpuddle & Captain Swing: The Flea & the Elephant' (to be reviewed in Northern Voices), has some blurb on the back that claims 'This pamphlet analyses why “Tolpuddle” has taken its place in the popular memory and the far more significant events of “Swing” have been distorted and forgotten.' For some reason this kind of approach seems to upset Dave Chapple, and when in a feeble-minded way I suggested to him that it may be represented as post-modernist he said 'It might be for you, Brian, but we don't have post-modernism in the CWU (Communication Workers' Union).'

My argument, for what it's worth, which I tried to offer in a question, was that both the British and French working-classes however 'revolutionary syndicalist' they may have been in 1910, became largely patriotic nationalists in 1914 during the First World War. I tried to say they did this because they were 'syndicalists' without a vision and, though I didn't say this; I meant they were not anarcho-syndicalists. By contrast I argued that the Spaniards in Barcelona in 1909 during the Semaña Tragica challenged the Spanish War in Africa when the Madrid Government called up the reserves in Catalonia. Gerald Brenan in his 'The Spanish Labyrinth' has written: 'Since the disastrous war in Cuba and the return of thousands of starving and malaria-ridden troops, the whole country had been strongly pacifist.' It seems the reserves consisted of married men of the working classes and Brenan writes: 'in Spain no one who could afford the small sum to buy himself out was ever conscripted.' It seems that there were painful scenes at the railway station when the troops left, and the next day the whole city rose in what came to known as the Semaña Tragica 'which [he says] was a spontaneous affair, not part of an anarchist plot...' The point I was making was that in Catalonia the people in 1909 resisted a war because of their history and culture, while the French and English working-classes – despite their syndicalist background - cheerfully joined in the First World War.

It could be argued that the British and French syndicalists of the pure syndicalist school had become too workerist, with too much emphasis on material matters with not enough consideration for social and cultural transformation. This view may itself be too simplistic because though Brenan argues that Lerroux's Radical Party may have had some blame for what happened in the Semaña Tragica, he writes that the trade unions lost control of their members and Catalan nationalism against Madrid may have been a factor. The end result was that the Radical Party was ruined by the riot and the 'workmen who had followed Lerroux believed ... he had sold himself to Madrid and they abandoned his party for the Anarchists.' The result of all this was the founding of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in 1910.

It was a good weekend down there in Tolpuddle with Dave Douglass. His diet is vegan and ought by rights to place him outside the human race: I even felt guilty licking a Dorset ice-cream in front of him. And yet, his sense of humour pulls him through; like when he described how a Welsh mining union official gave his closing address ending by saying his members ought to read 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'; whereupon Dave Douglass thanking him announced that the NUM members should read the Karma Sutra so that they will know what the Coal Board is about to do to them.


Anonymous said...

As a member of Bristol Radical History Group I think it is wrong to label us as post-modernist just because we haven't covered much Trade Union history. What we have been doing is rescuing some historical analysis from the 'post-modernists'.

For example, our approach to the transatlantic slave trade was to try to re-centre the debate around the need for labour by the rising mercantile-capitalist class rather than 'racism'. Similarly our analysis of the suffragette leadership is actually a critique of their class composition and class interests rather than an ahistorical feminist analysis. Our critique of Tolpuddle as an iconic story of the founding of the TU movement is aimed at highlighting the class struggle that led to the huge 'Swing' uprising (and Tolpuddle). This is not to denigrate Tolpuddle's impact on the urban working class but instead to point out that Tolpuddle is an element of an 'unbroken' history of class struggle by rural proletarians. A large part of which has been ignored by the TU history because it does and (did) not suit their ideas of 'acceptable' forms of struggle (eg. Swing contained machine breaking, collective bargaining by riot, threats of violence, extortion etc.)

Opening up episodes of class struggle outside the box of TU history seems to get some hackles up and is seen by some as 'anti-Trade Union' which is sad and is certainly an afront to most of us who are TU members/activists.

Class struggle is clearly not encompassed purely by TU activity as some sections of the left appear to believe. Our next set of events will be looking at the workplace struggles of the 1970s and will not be limited by the lens of formal TU activity. Instead we will be looking TU's as well as self-activity in the workplace, wildcat strikes, sabotage, absenteeism, resistance to work, struggles to achieve equal pay (for women and ethnic minorities). Which are all elements of the class struggle prevalent in the 1970s.

Editor said...

Thanks for the comment: all articles on Northern Voices are written by the individual contributor and don't reflect any kind of editorial line. Speaking personally, the Editor of the NV blog considers BRHG a real find, and will be purchasing some pamphlets forthwith!