Some thought Thatcher’s cool approach cold and insensitive; others admired her courage and determination but as the National Coal Strike of 1984 dragged on and political arguments raged between the government and unions the effect on ordinary people was emotional and real. Without coal, there would be power-cuts. The stocks of coal would be depleted when the winter came. This would mean, unless the strike was called-off, power stations and factories would be forced to shut-down, bringing the country to a standstill.
I lived in a Kent mining village during that time. Tilmanstone Colliery, near Dover, was threatened with closure too. Many of the miners were descendants of those who travelled on foot from Wales or the North of England specifically to work in the Kent coalfields early in the twentieth century. They were loyal, hard-working people. To their delight the Coal Board provided new houses to accommodate them, with all mod-cons. This was a luxury they were unaccustomed to, and the job promised a secure future. But by the 1970s the industry was in trouble: 34 pits were closed before Margaret Thatcher came to power. When Ian MacGregor became Chairman of the NCB in 1983, he resolved to shut all uneconomic pits. Arthur Scargill reacted with hostility, saving jobs being his priority. Those who continued working were threatened at the picket-lines. To protect them, the police were called in and so the situation escalated. Where emotions are running high, and people’s livelihoods are at risk, it’s easy for things to get out of control.
On the horizon, in the Midlands where I now live, eight wind-turbines have been built to generate electricity. Everything changes. In 1984 I looked out of my window and saw the headgear of the colliery standing tall and proud against the sun – now, in 2013, it is the blades of a windmill turning instead. One thing I know, we would be completely lost without electricity and there’s nothing like a lovely coal fire on a winter’s night.
My book, The Sea Inside His Head, explores the effect of Margaret Thatcher’s policies on a young couple – the coal-miner Bradley and his wife Helen. Perhaps I could compare the effect of the National Coal Strike as like being thrown into a war situation, when a couple’s home-life is suddenly devastated by things happening in the outside world which are beyond their control. The strike stopped their routine in its tracks; it caused my protagonist Bradley to reflect on his job, working as a coal-miner, and wonder to himself whether that really was what he wanted to do with his life. It also caused Helen to re-assess her own role and perhaps discover in herself skills she never knew she had.
Bradley, in the opening pages, witnesses his father dying from Pneumoconiosis and after this he begins to resent the pit. He is thrown into a helpless situation, wanting to work to earn extra money to start a new life somewhere else, but with the very job he had come to loathe denied him. Debts mount, but his family and friends are all supporting the fight to keep the pit open. It leaves him feeling lonely and isolated. Finally, in a moment of desperation, he tries to tell Helen about his true feelings but she is adamant they must fight on.
Neither Bradley nor Helen know what is in store for them as the months pass and there is no sign of an agreement. Helen, busy running the soup-kitchen, also becomes heavily involved with organizing the fight to keep the pits open while Bradley retreats to his allotment, keeping his thoughts to himself. Helen is gaining confidence and when an NUM meeting is called in the village she urges Bradley to attend:
‘You’ve got to tell them we’re not open to compromise,’ she said importantly. ‘Tell them we’re managing. We’ve got plenty of money in the kitty and support from all over the country. We’ll get by, so long as we stick together, for as long as it takes. Let that Maggie Thatcher know she’s got a real fight on her hands! I’d like to stand up and say we’re behind them a hundred per cent – the strike’s not just about money, it’s the principle of it! We want prospects! Job security! Oh Brad!’ she cried, reaching out and grasping his upper arms with firm hands, her eyes shining. ‘We want jobs for life, don’t we? It’ll be worth it in the end.’
Bradley doesn’t have the heart to dampen her enthusiasm but when Helen proudly talks of their baby son’s future, and how he could follow in his father’s footsteps, Bradley replies bitterly:
‘Future? Look where it got my old dad, in his grave without a breath of life in him before he was forty-five! Is that your so-called future? Is that what you want for me, and for our Sam?’
What happens to Bradley and Helen? You will have to read my book to find out!
- Theresa Le Flem, author of The Sea Inside His Head