Miners’ Hymns reviewed by Mike Quille in the Morning Star
This country is haunted by the ghosts of miners, and by one insistent question arising from their monumental labours. What has happened to all the wealth they created?
Millions of miners in this country dug coal out of the ground for hundreds of years, providing the energy that powered industry, fuelled transport and heated houses. The dangerous, unhealthy, backbreaking work of men and women in pit communities made rapid capitalist development possible, in this country and elsewhere. It powered the Industrial Revolution, sustained the British Empire, and ultimately helped create the modern day global dominance of industrial and financial capitalism. Their labour produced vast fortunes and huge power for individuals, companies and countries.
The miners’ economic sacrifices were matched by their political achievements. They helped create and propel to power trade unions and the Labour Party, and through them the Welfare State: free, universal education and healthcare, and benefits to alleviate the suffering of unemployment, sickness, and old age. That is their legacy to us.
‘Miners’ Hymns’ is about the economic and political struggles of those mining communities. Bill Morrison, an American multi-media artist, has mined contemporary and archive film footage to create a poetic and elegiac memorial to the industrial and political culture of the Durham miners, before their jobs and communities were snuffed out by Thatcherite economics in the eighties and nineties.
It starts with aerial shots of the East Durham coastline, of the supermarkets, business parks and grassed fields which now cover the sites of former collieries. Then the music starts, a gentle cacophony of haunting, insistent brass over decaying church organ chords. The soundtrack to the film is inspired by ‘Gresford’, the ‘miners’ hymn’, composed by a North East miner after a terrible pit disaster which claimed several hundred lives.
Footage of waves breaking on the shore is reversed, and we’re being taken back to the past, to one of the postwar Durham Miners’ Galas. Crowds of flat-capped men, with faces as hard as the rock they struggled with, have gathered for the political speeches. Women also stare at the camera: their lined faces show that they too know the meaning of hard work. They seem to be asking: where is the wealth we worked so hard for? What have you done with what we left you?
Then slowly, we’re taken to the primary site of their struggle and suffering, the pit. We follow the miners as they walk to the pithead through dark, deserted streets, and descend in cages to the black underworld of the coalface. The brass accompaniment reaches a rumbling and roaring crescendo as we witness the work. Older footage shows pickaxes being swung at two-foot high seams by men lying in water. Trolleys laden with coal, drawn by horses, pushed by men, traverse the intense, Orphean darkness. In more recent footage, massive coal-cutting machines cut through the seams like butter, shearing off huge slabs of coal onto the conveyor belts which are carried out of the mine. We’re watching the production of the wealth of the nation: where is it going?
We come out of the pit, into the fresh air, and see other aspects of life in the mining communities. Seacoalers bag coal off beaches; children slither down mountainous slag heaps; boys play cricket on the road, in terraced villages festooned with washing lines.
We watch as preparations are made for the Gala. The cathedral is glimpsed over Durham’s wet roofs. Miners begin arriving.
Suddenly the film cuts to 1984, and hundreds of police are assembling to protect buses with a handful of strikebreakers on them. Then we’re at Orgreave, watching pitched battles between police and miners. We see squads of police cavalry charging, riding the miners down, truncheoning defenceless pickets.
Then we’re back to aerial shots of former mines, now covered by car parks and other new developments. The music has become subdued, consoling.
We watch more archive film, going back to before the First World War, of smiling miners coming off shift, pouring out of the pitheads. And then we’re back at the Big Meeting, watching trade unionists on the march, young people dancing through the streets, whole communities marching together behind their brass bands and lodge banners. The music builds to a climax as the miners march proudly into the cathedral, and then is lowered to a respectful finale for the blessing of the banners.
The film itself is a kind of blessing, a kind of hymn to the miners. Each of the sequences lays down veins of meaning, about work, history, struggle and celebration, like seams of coal. Avoiding nostalgia and sentimentality, and showing clearly the brutal, destructive class war unleashed on mining communities, it is a dignified homage to the miners and their families, to their sheer hard work, and to a cultured, collective, and co-operative way of life that has been all but destroyed. You will not see a more beautiful, moving and truthful memorial to the industrial working class.
And it works as a kind of dialogue with the ghosts of those miners. They gaze out at us as the wealth they created is transmuted into capital and used to exploit new generations of proletarians across the world. They watch us cheerfully, hopefully, as the Labour Party they supported and sustained severs its links with trade unions. And they stare at us as the Welfare State they struggled to create is dismantled and destroyed, like their jobs, their industry and their communities. They are asking, what has happened to the wealth we created?
They being dead yet speaketh. What do we say back to them?
‘Miners’ Hymns’ recently played with live musical accompaniment, at the Sage Gateshead (as part of the AV festival in the North East), at the Barbican, and to an audience of ex-miners at Easington Welfare Club, Durham. It is available on DVD from the British Film Institute.