It’s 30 years this week since the year-long British miners strike began. My own academic work focusses on the way the strike and the rapid de-industrialisation that followed it is still having an impact in a range of ways – social, economic, health, environmental, political – a generation after the pits closed. The scale of the enforced deindustrialisation is extraordinary when one reflects on it. In 1984, around 250 pits across England, Scotland and Wales employed upward of a quarter of a million workers in Britain’s coalmining industry. By 1994 most of them had gone. Today three deep mines remain. In 1984 there were six pits within a five mile circle from where I sit typing this in my study at home in the South Yorkshire coalfield. Indeed, at that time the southern part of Yorkshire alone directly employed 40,000 mine workers . Tens of thousands were also employed in associated industries. One pit, employing 600 workers, is all that is left. The industry has, to all intents and purposes, disappeared.
For this last two days, I’ve been busily responding to anniversary related media interest in my work. (Follow this link to Allan Beswick’s show, listen from 01:43:41, and Alan Clifford’s show and listen from 01.25.25.) Basically, I argue that that the strike and its aftermath are not matters of merely historical interest but are, rather, a continuing – if, more often than not, unspoken – context for the lived experience of thousands of young people within Britain’s former coalfields. That context, my work suggests, continues to have profound effects on the way that young people experience schooling and come to imagine their educational opportunities a genereration after the pits have closed. Even though, in the words of one of my research participants, “they don’t know anything” about that context. What, then, is going on?
My academic work
The principle topic of my doctoral inquiry (now being written up into a book, due early next year) was an ethnographic examination of intergenerational experiences of educational ‘disaffection’ in four former Derbyshire coal-mining communities during the period of de-industrialisation. A key focus was the investigation of school disaffection as an affective aspect of local historical geographies of resistance and conflict relating to the 1984-85 strike and the class memory narratives in which it has become entwined. To get close to such materials, I tried initially to elaborate an ethnographic practice informed by affect theory; the psycho-social work of Valerie Walkerdine; work on the relationally embodied ‘psychic economies’ of class such as that carried out by Beverley Skeggs and Diane Reay; and recent work in memory studies and at the edge of human geography. This practice, I speculated, would operate at different but complementary levels: as critical policy ethnography; as interrogation of the dialectics of discourse and the everyday; and as an amplifier of the intensities of affect as they move through frames something similar to Raymond Williams’ “structures of feeling”. I imagined, that is, an ethnographic enterprise situated at the troublesome edge between policy discourse, material cultural practice, and what Gregory and Seigworth (2010) have called the “bloom-spaces” of affect.
What my fieldwork engagement, now eight years long, reveals through this lens is a complex, ghosted intergenerational affective transmission process which occurs in ways that affects the attitudes of some young people – often already the most excluded – towards education. My research repeatedly registers affective intensities that are never quite visible, leak around the edges of things, are hidden in plain sight and, in that sense, are “occult” in the original meaning of that word. My ethnographic materials frequently speak to a form of knowing without knowing that is more than mere tacit knowledge, habitus, or embodied collective memory. It registers at the very edge of the effable and has, indeed, much of the uncanny about it. In the coalfields, people often talk about some kind of “haunting” reaching back through a classed community history; about fixated repetitions in a halted time where things viciously “rubbed out” still make themselves palpably present.
A haunting going on?
Here’s an example from one of my participants. Trainee youth worker, Stephanie – herself a child in the 1984-85 strike – is talking about a school rebuilding/rebranding project in one of the former pit villages:
It’s almost, like, ghostly isn’t it? That space [the old school] is related to that time and you can paint it, you can put wallpaper on it, you can fill the cracks in, but it still holds that time… …So, we’ll build [the new school] right next to it and when you look at that new school – which is amazing – you look at that [old] school [next to it] and you do see it’s prefabbed, it’s pebble dashed, it’s awful. It’s got it written: depression, sadness, stamped across it, all over it. This [new] school is bright. It’s full of windows. It’s got different pods – they’re called ‘pods’! Erm, so if you’re in this [old] school you’re brow beaten and depressed and shamed and got nothing to look forward to. But at this [new] school – which is built right next to it, [it’s] a bit more… Yeeeah! But, they’re not really taking the past into the future! [The problem is that there’s a] haunting, yes, that’s a good way of putting it. I think that’s the right way to explain it. I don’t know if you can lay [ghosts]. I don’t know if you can. It’s the past. It happened. It’s part of…it’s part of who we are for those that was involved and those that were affected…Yes…I think it needs to be talked about. I think it needs to be talked about in schools. They’ll talk about black slavery, which is interesting, and it’s fantastic and it’s a great subject but what do you actually do with that? But why not talk about something that’s significant to [the kids] I don’t think you can ever exorcise [the strike] because I don’t think…I think it needs addressing [….] You do know what’s a matter with them. That’s the whole point.
Or, here, as Stacey, another chid of the strike – also now a youth worker – puts the same point: “Yeah, definitely, definitely… you know I’ve had kids that were second generation, you know, their parents weren’t even miners but, you know, they still say: ‘Aye, it’s the f*****g miners strike!’”
Avery Gordon’s idea of a social haunting
In my current work on the coalfields, I’ve been working with the idea of a ‘social haunting’ as developed by University of California and Goldsmiths based sociologist, Avery Gordon. A social haunting, Gordon suggests, “…registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present” and is “one prevalent way in which modern systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life”. It is a “socio-political-psychological state” that is “precisely the domain of turmoil and trouble, that moment (of however long a duration) when things are not in their assigned places, when the cracks and rigging are exposed, when people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings cannot be put away, when something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done”. Revisiting the idea in the 2008 introduction to the new edition of her extraordinary book Ghostly matters: Haunting and the sociological imagination, Gordon describes social ghosts as “haunting reminders of lingering trouble” and notifications “that what’s been concealed is very much alive and present”.
…and 30 years on
Does all this sound a little bit flaky? Do we still need convincing about the value of a sociology of the invisible? Well, anyone questioning whether the UK coalfields remain subject to a social haunting that cleaves the present generation of young people to its spectral embrace should have been given eerie pause by some recent events. Let’s look if we may at two funeral processions: in April 2013 one of the last remaining pits in the UK – Maltby, in South Yorkshire (about 12 miles from my research site) – closed and was met with a funeral ceremony; a week or so later, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister at the time of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, took place; and not without celebration in the coalfields (not least in Goldthorpe, again in South Yorkshire).
In each case, the ambivalent, paradoxical and complex affective geography of the absent coal-mining industry that I have drawn attention to in my published work was abundantly evident in the fullness of its revenant presence. Here are some of its spooky mockeries and unheimlich visitations: at Goldthorpe, the long rows of blackened, boarded-up terraced houses; a ‘miner’ in black-face; a Thatcher effigy leaning against the wall of the Union Jack (!) club prior to being loaded onto a horse-drawn hearse and carried in procession through the village to waste land where according to the press “it was set light to cheers and cries of ‘Scab! Scab! Scab!’”
This insubordinate, carnivalesque up helly aa – portrayed, of course, merely as a scowl of ressentiment – was, as I’m told by friends who were there, ‘mainly light hearted’.
At Maltby, we hear the brass band playing the ‘disaster hymn’, Gresford, while a piece of coal is ceremoniously buried at the ‘grave of the unknown miner’; children, meanwhile, are playing in the street round the corner. The street’s name? Kier Hardie Close.
Back in Goldthorpe, a TV presenter says to a retired miner she interviews: “It’s as if you’re in a time warp”. Her interviewee pauses momentarily as temporal logics clash, then adds uncomprehendingly: “We are in a time warp”. Every face, of course, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, facing simultaneously backwards and forwards; every move rehearsed intuitively in what Raphael Samuel called the “theatre of memory”, every trope in this rhetoric of grievance and hope finessed intuitively, and every move known without knowing. Teenagers carrying banners calling for utopias long dispossessed in a neoliberal present of call centre work, the bedroom tax and benefits hassle.
I was in Goldthorpe last Saturday, March 1st, for the 30th anniversary celebration “Digging up black gold” (even the invocation conjures alchemical transformation!)
Towards the end of the day, I stood in the “Comrades Club” and watched a young woman diligently decorating a plate with a picture of a miner’s lamp. With a wonderful draughtswomanship and an instinctive eye for the vernacular iconography she free-drew the design without any template. It was quite amazing to watch, and I told her so. She paused, telling me she didn’t really know why she was doing it because “I dun’t know owt about all this. I’ve just come wi’ me mum”. She said she was 17 and studying care. Then she stopped, looked up and quietly asked me “What do you write on ‘em? They all have summat written on ‘em. What is it?” I fumbled for an answer and didn’t do very well. Not really needing an answer, she turned back to her task and – deploying the unbidden rhetoric of class memory with intuitive ease – went on to faultlessly inscribe the following word amulet: “Lights will guide you home. Gone but not forgotten”.
Now look back at the photo at the start of this blog post. Look closely at the top right. The kids are carefully stencilling the ghostly silhouette of a coal miner onto the pavements of Goldthorpe. Now look very closely at the bottom left hand corner. There’s the stencilled figure. Showing up and giving no sign of leaving.
No sign of leaving… but of a haunting going on.