By spending eight months in a Durham pit village, Keith Pattison found out that the longest strike in British history wasn't all about cops and miners punching each other in the head. In doing so, he took some of the dispute's most poignant images.
Today marks 30 years since the end of the longest running strike in British history. On the 3rd of March 1985, the National Union of Mineworkers reluctantly voted to call off their year-long strike. Almost 200,000 miners had participated in an industrial dispute that was widely seen as a battle between Margaret Thatcher's economic policies and the organised working class. The year would see violence between striking miners and an uncompromising, militarised, police force attempting to aid strike-breakers and maintain coal production at some level.
But of course, it wasn't all riots. Keith Pattison spent eight months in the East Durham pit village of Easington Colliery – featured in the film Billy Elliot – photographing the daily goings on as the strike progressed. Though an insignificant footnote on the face of it, Keith's 2010 book, No Redemption, a collaboration with writer David Peace (Red Riding, The Damned United), would provide some of the most humanising images of the dispute. I travelled to his current home just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed to discuss the strike and his images.
VICE: Let's start at the beginning, how did you end up taking these photographs in the East Durham coalfield?
Keith Pattison: At the time, I was scraping a living as a photographer, documenting arts projects mainly. This was obviously in the days when only photographers really had the skills, and people couldn't just knock stuff out on a digital camera to document what they wanted. One of the outfits I worked for were based in Sunderland. They placed artists in industry, be that shipbuilding, steel work or tank manufacturing and asked them to respond to it creatively. The lady who ran the scheme had contacts with people in Easington and saw an opportunity to send someone in to document the strike from another point of view, and so they asked me. I was really reluctant at first, because I didn't think I was good enough, but after an hour of being there, I just thought, "this is brilliant, I don't want to be anywhere else".
What did the miners think of having a photographer? Were they sceptical over who you were representing?
I think the union were quite amused when we'd asked them, "do you think it would be useful to have a photographer in?", because they just couldn't see a mechanism where that could be useful. I mean 30 years ago, such were the means by which you distributed images nationally, those resources just weren't available to normal people, and so the miners found themselves at the mercy of the national media or the BBC. But entering an intensely tight community like that, you're never sure what kind of reaction there's going to be, and whether or not people would just see you as an interloper with a camera. But they were so reassuring and I was embraced into it really, they were just glad to have someone there to listen to them for once.
Was the way the strike had been represented elsewhere something you had to consider?
It was post-Orgreave [a particularly violent confrontation between strikers and police] when I arrived, and so I'd been confronted with all this sensationalism from the newspapers and TV around that, and I thought, "Christ, what am I walking in to?" Landing on a very wet Thursday, there were guys at the pit gate with a brazier – it was straight out of central casting you know, this is what a strike looks like. But within days of standing on the picket with them, I had become their photographer, and they looked after me. The police identified me as being with them because I didn't stand on the street corner with the other press photographers. I was doing something different, and so whatever notions of impartiality I might have wanted to entertain, I was kind of pushed into a position anyway, it really was, "which side are you on?"
What was the state of affairs in Easington when you arrived? How far along was the strike?
I arrived in July, and arranged to lodge with a single miner who lived round the corner from the pit gate. It coincided with a big push from the government and the police to get people back to work. They were desperately trying to break the strike, and suddenly I was in the midst of it. It was this extraordinary happening just 50 yards away from our front door, every morning was this great piece of street theatre, and that's not to belittle it, but a real sense of history in front of the lens. I'd never seen police with riot helmets on before and I was the only one there with a camera for the majority of the time. These things were happening and they were often unrecorded, which seems crazy now.
Yeah, it seems like the recording is such a massive part of any protest these days. It's not uncommon for photographers to outnumber protesters. But the media obviously did play a massive role in the strike. Was there a palpable sense of mis-representation amongst the miners?
There was an intense frustration on the ground as, from day one, there was an extraordinary level of support for the strike not just from Labour Party members and union members, but from the general public as a whole, all over the country. But the mainstream media were continually mis-representing how things were on the picket lines. Most days, the most exciting thing that happened in Easington was that people shouted at a bus, and then everyone would just get on with whatever they were doing. There wasn't anywhere near the levels of violence portrayed by the national media. People felt really marginalised. The way that the big hitters like the Mail or the Sun focussed on (NUM Leader) Arthur Scargill, and made him a hate figure, comparing him to Hitler and all sorts, they did exactly the same to Alex Salmond during the Yes campaign. It's easier to attack the man than the idea though.
The real violence was that which was being acted out on people's communities on an ideological level.
They wanted to close down the industry that defined these people and places. For all the party lines about viability and un-economic pits, it was purely an ideological battle through which they wanted to crush trade unionism and that ability to organise. Even these East coast pits, with their massive under sea reserves, were deemed uneconomical; the irony being that the money spent on trying to sustain these communities in the wake of the pit closures has far surpassed the costs of keeping the industry going. And we're still importing coal on top of that; it was just absolute vandalism on a massive scale.
One thing I notice about how your photographs represent the strike, is that real sense of place. You don't just go for the sensational stuff, you see the beauty in how this village rallied together.
There were a slew of photographers working for various left-wing publications – Socialist Workers Party, Workers Revolutionary Party and so on – who tended to travel round the coalfields documenting the flash-points. There was a lot more violence in Yorkshire, and so a lot of the photography is concentrated there, but I suppose I was a bit of a coward, I didn't want to go for the rough stuff. So I just stayed in Easington and really got intimately involved with the ebb and flow of the strike. After the month I was due to spend there had passed, I felt like I couldn't walk away from it, and so I sold a few prints here and there to keep me going. Once the August was over, people were taking up really entrenched positions and sitting it out. The police had control of the pit and everyone else was either off picketing or just keeping morale up. It was a difficult one, people were generally feeling quite beaten, and so I tended to just photograph what I came into contact with.
The miners strike is considered a moment of politicisation for a lot of working class women, was that something you noticed at the time?
The women were the backbone absolutely, and hugely politicised, which was really exciting for lots of them I think, because they could suddenly take centre stage. They were more politicised than the men in some ways. They were so resourceful, feeding hundreds and hundreds of people per day on contributions and very limited cooking facilities.
I think one of the most poignant images is that shot of the vote to return to work. How did the atmosphere differ then from when you first arrived?
Well obviously when I first arrived it was optimistic; people thought they had a chance. I don't think anyone could have imagined the village being sealed off by hundreds of police, nobody saw that coming. But by March 1985, everyone had had the stuffing knocked out of them. They were all in huge amounts of debt, their benefits had been cut. People were getting arrested for the most minor things, meaning a criminal record and every chance that you wouldn't get your job back anyway – punishing stuff. I don't think that the vote was a big surprise; I think there's a case for saying that the strike would have eventually just collapsed by itself, so it was a way of going back with some dignity. But this was after a year. You look at yourself and think, "could I have kept that up for a year?" Being battered daily in the media, having no money, living off contributions. A lot of people felt really embarrassed about that because they had been on good money. I think they just thought, "thank goodness".
In the wider context, what do you think the miners' strike came to symbolise, and how do you think it will be remembered in the future?
For capitalism, it was the overthrowing of the power of working people. It came part and parcel with the de-regulation of the financial industries. Suddenly this was the magic bullet that was going to turn the country around. But of course it hasn't worked out like that. What we have now is inequality on a massive scale, banks that have taken the country to the absolute brink, and we have a continually humiliated working class who are constantly pulverised and demonised.
Do you think it was the end of collectivism and of really large-scale political engagement from the working class?
Yes, but also pride in manual labour and being working class people. It's going to be difficult to collectivise those who serve coffee and make pizza. But one of the clever things that Thatcher did in disempowering trade unions was to remove the infrastructure that enabled working people to become politicised and get into politics through their workplace. It's opened up a space for political wannabes and careerist jerks who have no sense of what might be happening in working class communities. People don't feel that it's possible to be involved in politics; they're not offered those avenues.
Did Easington have any lasting personal affect on you?
Well my first son was born on the day the strike ended, so I got a bit distracted. I worked on and off for the NUM in the Durham coalfield afterwards, but I drifted away and it became an event that had passed. It wasn't until I read David Peace's book GB84 that I suddenly realised that I needed to go back to the pictures. This was in 2010 with a potential Tory government on the horizon and the pictures seemed to re-focus and swing into context again. Even after 13 years of New Labour, I realised what we'd lost.
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