I’ve had the miners’ strike more on my mind since I went to see the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the Hayward Gallery a couple of weeks ago, because the exhibition includes his famous reenactment of The Battle of Orgreave, when police cavalry charged protesting strikers.
So when The Guardian published some poems from Jubilee Lines, edited by Carol Ann Duffy (she has commissioned a new poem for each of the 60 years of the Queen’s reign) I turned first to the mid-80s. Sean O’Brien, whom I’ve written about here before, a child of the north, had claimed 1985 with a tough and unforgiving poem called ‘Another Country’:
Whenever someone sagely says it’s time to draw a line,
We may infer that they’ve extracted all the silver from the mine.
O’Brien’s poem starts with a epigraph from Auden, ‘Get there if you can’, the title of a 1930 poem. Here’s an extract:
Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew the boiler fires
Pylons falling or subsiding, trailing dead high-tension wires;
Head-gears gaunt on grass-grown pit-banks, seams abandoned years ago;
Drop a stone and listen for its splash in flooded dark below…
Auden was born in York and brought up in Birmingham, but was fascinated by underground workings and mining machinery. This early poem – not included by him in his Collected Poems – was written on a visit to the north-east of England, where O’Brien now lives and works. It is one of several from the period that dealt with the decaying or lost landscapes of the early industrial revolution.
There are obvious echoes here of the industrial landscape that Britain has lost since Thatcher’s campaign de-industrialise the country (I use the word ‘campaign’ with care here) of which the calculated destruction of the National Union of Mineworkers was such an exemplary part. And echoes too, in O’Brien’s title, of the famous opening line of L.P. Hartley’s novel of loss, and of class antagonism. London, now, is the other country, as it milks the rest of Britain of resources.
But no matter what you do, history doesn’t vanish. (I had this argument once with an uncomprehending career coach who told me I could put the history I was embedded in to one side and simply ‘move on’ in the modern, deracinated, non-place manner. I was uncomprehending too). And this is how Sean O’Brien ends his poem:
Where all year long the battle raged, there’s “landscape” and a plaque,
But though you bury stuff forever, it keeps on coming back:
Here then lie the casualties of one more English Civil War,
That someone, sometime – you, perhaps – will have to answer for.
No matter how hard you try to tramp it down, the dirt insists on coming up through the roots.
The image at the top is a screenshot of Mike Figgis’ film of Deller’s reconstruction of The Battle of Orgreave, from the Bureaux blog, and is used with thanks.