WISERD conversation – The Shadow of the Mine

In September I was asked by my friend Ian Rhys Jones at the research Institute WISERD to give a talk at their awayday about the bookThe Shadow of the Mine that I had written with Ray Hudson. The awayday became a virtual one, as a consequence of the virus, and we decided that rather than me speak for 40 minutes it would be more interesting to have a conversation about the book with my old friend Gareth Rees. This was recorded, and  as with the interview for Jacobin it extends some of the issues that we discussed in the book. Some people have found this interesting, the video is below and here’s the link to the event on the WISERD site

Conversation with Jacobin

On one afternoon in early October my friend Ray and I were involved in a long conversation about our new book The Shadow of the Mine with a young woman in Boston, Piper Winkler. She was interviewing us for the radical magazine Jacobin and the conversation on Zoom lasted for three hours. We were very taken by her interest in the history of the British coalminers. We learnt that she and her friends had been very influenced by the film Pride and was keen to talk about the organisation of solidarity which the coalminers seemed to have mastered. The interview was wide ranging and went well beyond the details of the book. Some people found it interesting so here’s the link the the Jacobin article.

Breaking Point

Film – Miners Strike 1985

When the renowned Swedish film director Kjell-Ake Andersson was a young man, he visited South Wales in 1973 on a photographic expedition. Travelling on a shoe string, with his girlfriend and eight month old daughter Matilda he was taken in to a miner’s home in Bargoed. They stayed together in the village for three months, talking with the people and  taking photographs, returning twice in the following year. Widely accepted by the miners and their families, Anderson’s photographs portrayed their lives in intimate detail. His book, Gruvarbetare in Wales, was published in Sweden in 1977 and has become recognised as one of the most perceptive visual accounts of mining life in that period. One of the photographs is included inside The Shadows of the Mine and we are hoping to find a way of exhibiting his work in Wales in 2022.

Today Andersson often looks back to the time at Bargoed and recalls ‘meeting the mining community has made a great impact in my life. The generosity and solidarity and friendship I have never forgotten’.

He did return to the valleys in 1985 to make another important contribution. By this time established in film making, his documentary, Breaking Point, on the 1984-85 strike at Oakdale provided a telling account of the community in the snows of January. He has provided us with a version of this film: the narration is in Swedish, but the sounds of the valley town and the words of its people can be clearly heard, bringing back memories of the weeks before the strike ended. Take a look.

Breaking Point (1985). A film by Kjell-Ake Andersson

The good start

The railway into Kellingley Colliery, ©Alan Murray-Rust (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited  Scotland he was asked to name the date when the UK would be free of fossil fuel.  He provided no answer, instead he talked of the “good start” provided by Mrs Thatcher’s closure of the coal mines, adding to the view that the dramatic closure of the British coal industry was driven by environmental necessity. Anything but as my friend Ray Hudson and I explore in our article in Tribune.  Thatcher’s main concern was the NUM. Our reliance on coal extended well beyond the closure of the mines. Today Britain is far less well prepared for a green future that countries (like Germany) that kept their pits open longer. 

When the last coal mine – Kellingley – closed in 2015 its shipments to the Drax power station were replaced with coal from Russian mines then adding to the half a trillion tonnes of imports made by the UK since 2001. Meanwhile on the coalfields the miners were, to all intents and purposes, pensioned off and their future left in the hands of the market and the beneficence of foreign inward investment. There was no strategic national plan for the coalfields or for a green economy!  Today, Johnson’s description of Britain as the “Saudi Arabia of wind” ignores the 34% of electricity generation that comes from burning gas in power stations.

All this is fanciful. The future may well lie in off-shore wind power but no British company has the expertise that Vestas and Siemens-Gamesa have accumulated over the last decades. In fact, the number of  companies based in the UK involved in off-shore wind  declined  by a third in the years between 2014 and 2019.   If there was indeed an early start it has clearly been wasted.  Johnson’s projection of the UK as a “world leader” in climate change has already been called out as a lie and it is clear that any future    green revolution it’s unlikely to be  driven by technologies ‘built better’ in the UK  on its old industrial regions.

No, Thatcher’s War on the Miners Wasn’t Good for Green PoliticsTribune 24/08/2021

Our book is now published…

Well our new book The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain is now published and also reviewed here and there:

“A hymn to working-class community and to men and women’s souls” Will Hutton, author of The State We’re In

“Refreshing and necessary … [The Shadow of the Mine] explains in loving, careful detail why working people’s relationship with Labour in former industrial communities … had become complex and ultimately soured.” Laura Pidcock, Red Pepper

“Their brilliant analysis of the decline of British coal mining, and its social and political effects, is required reading for those who would speak for this working class. It is in many ways a study in the lost world of British labourism.” David Edgerton, The Times Literary Supplement

The Shadow of the Mine reminds us why this spirit [of solidarity and collectivism] has lived on in the coalfields, in spite of people feeling a sense of political betrayal going back decades … enlightening.” The Guardian

“Their new book is essential reading for anyone who wants to dig deeper beyond vague generalizations about the “red wall” that have proliferated since December 2019…Beynon and Hudson encourage us to explore the long-term trends that have shaped the bewildering political situation we find ourselves in now” Charlotte Austin, Jacobin

“The Shadow of the Mine, is a moving account of 150 years of coalfield history, focusing on South Wales and Durham. It is not, however, a detached study of the past. By tracing the “deep story” of the marginalisation of Britain’s coalfields, it aims to understand the continuing exclusion of working-class people in deindustrialised areas from political and social life…if the current Labour leader wants to understand the challenges facing him, he would be far better reading The Shadow of the Mine than listening to PR companies telling him to wrap the party in a union jack.” Diarmaid Kelliher, Antipode Online

About the book

The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain, London, Verso, 2021, 402pp. ISBN -13:978-1-83976-156-0

This historical study of the coal industry tells of King Coal in its heyday and how communities of mining families created a unique and powerful social and political presence in areas like South Wales and Durham. In 1984 miners here were involved in a yearlong strike to save jobs  and to save coal mining. After the defeat the industry went into precipitous decline and this book outlines the social and political consequences that followed: often told in the words of the people themselves.

Buried Alive by the National Coal Board


Image of Aberfan cemetery

Copyright Stephen McKay licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Last week across the country but particularly in Wales we have been thinking of Aberfan and the terrible events that unfolded there fifty years ago. The main emphasis has been on the tragedy of it all and the terribly sad loss of all those children and the implications for their families and friends. In all this, in a way that mirrored the event itself, the National Coal Board has got off rather lightly. Occasionally though criticism has emerged. Midway through Karl Jenkins’ brilliant religious Cantata Memoria – for the children – Bryn Terfel sang: “Buried Alive by the National Coal Board”. Here he was echoing the words of the grieving father driven beyond limits by the coroner’s talk of “asphyxia and multiple injuries” This was not what he wanted on the death certificate of his child, he wanted the NCB to be held responsible. Others agreed and there were cries of “murderers”.

On the day of the catastrophe, it should be remembered, the ex Labour Minister Lord Robens, Chairman of the NCB, was being installed as the Chancellor of the University of Surrey. This event took precedence and he didn’t arrive in South Wales until the following evening. His subsequent behaviour revealed the same lack of care and concern. It was he who first stretched credibility with his claim that the existence of springs underneath the tip was unknown and unknowable. At the Inquiry in Mountain Ash he asserted that he was not a technician and could not be held responsible. After the NCB had been blamed by the Inquiry, he insisted that the organisation would not pay for the removal of the tip. Neither would the Labour Government, this was made clear by the Secretary of State for Wales George Thomas – Lord Tonypandy. The cost would have to be borne by the Disaster Fund set up by the local council, and in an act of dubious legality the fund was raided for £150,000.

Thirty years later another Secretary of State – Ron Davies – fulfilled a pledge to return the money. This was paid without interest, a further slight which was later made good by a donation from the newly devolved Welsh government. In all this time the people of the village were left to deal with things as best they could – with the support of each other, with looks and tears, sometimes in silence, by not talking about it at all. Bereft.

It’s hard to see beyond the tears but in Aberfan we can also find a touchstone to people’s loss of faith in the established institutions of Labour. The Report of the Aberfan Disaster Tribunal spoke of “bungling ineptitude by many men” but no direct blame, no disciplinary action, no prosecutions. Today a charge of corporate manslaughter would certainly have been considered given the chronic disregard for safety that preceded the calamity of 21st October. The events that followed, by adding insult to injury, eroded any meaning from the claim that the NCB was an organisation being run “on behalf of the people”. For many who worked in the industry it was the last straw. The Labour Party too: in 1966 it had polled 60.7% of the vote in Wales but four years later it fell to 51.6% continuing downward to the current low of 36.9%.

Huw Beynon

How Black were our Valleys – Book Review

How Black were our Valleys

How Black were our Valleys

Debora Price and Natalie Butts-Thompson

“If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything”
This is what one of the women interviewed for this book feels that she has learned from living in the South Wales valleys and growing up during the coal miners’ strike of 1984/85.  In this way, through interviews and extracts from documents, the book tells of how the strike remains a lived reality in the valley towns of South Wales. One man, a young striker in his teens in 1984, reflected  that “the violence that was inflicted on me and the violence I witnessed fellow miners receive will stay with me for the rest of my days”.

The book itself was inspired by a speeches and discussion at a social evening at the Newbridge Hotel held on the occasion of the funeral of Mrs Margaret Thatcher. This led two undergraduate students to document stories of the strike that  they felt deserved to be more widely heard.  In a very short time, they have collected the materials, and published them in this excellent collection. One of them (Natalie Butts-Thompson) was a teenager herself in 1984 and her personal account is particularly moving. In exploring the voices of the young people the book brings a perspective that has been silent in many accounts of the strike. More generally  it challenges many of the myths that still exist, and helps to explain its lasting significance of the strike in people’s lives.

Review for Amazon

Huw Beynon