Women of the Miners’ Strike 30 Years On
Public Battles, Private Wars came about by accident. I was researching another story idea when I came across an image of a group of women marching down a suburban street. They carried a banner: Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures.
Initially it wasn’t the banner that caught my attention – it was the expressions on the women’s faces. Broad smiles, sparkly eyes; they walked with a spring (and a half) in their steps. With purpose.
From the clothes and (let’s be honest) terrible haircuts – all Princess Diana bangs and frizzy perms – I realised it must have been taken during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. Keen to see more, I tapped ‘miners’ strike’ into the search engine. It threw up a plethora of photos of angry men, confrontations between miners and police on horseback. Battlefields.
I flipped back to the women. They didn’t look angry – I was sure there must have been frustration and rage directed at a government hell bent on destroying the world they knew; a government led by a woman (so much for the sisterhood) – but such anger wasn’t in evidence here. What was apparent, was a sense of empowerment, a sense of working together towards a common goal, and a sense that these women were discovering themselves in the process. As it turned out, my instincts were correct.
A little more digging and I learnt that whilst there is a wealth of writing about the dispute, the bulk of it is non-fiction. I found only three novels and all focus on the men. Realising I’d lost hours mooching about online, I returned to my work in progress…
But those fabulous Yorkshire women wouldn’t go away; they held onto my imagination as firmly as they held those banners. And then a young redhead began talking to me. She was 23 years old, married with three kids and another on the way; she was uneducated, but bright and sparky. Her self-esteem was low. She was stuck in a functioning but lack-lustre relationship. She wasn’t much good at anything, other than baking. Or so she thought. I had to tell her story. Public Battles, Private Wars was born.
It took twelve months to write the novel; the duration of the strike. The first draft poured out in a little under five, and it took another seven months of redrafting and revising before I felt I had done my lead, Mandy, her friends and the women of the strike any kind of justice.
In the course of my research I read countless books, articles, diaries and accounts. I spoke to people – experts – and since then I’ve spoken to more women about the profound effects that long, hard year in the mid-80s had on their lives. It was a shit time, no mistaking. There was extreme hardship and, ultimately, defeat. But, and it’s important to stress this, out of those desperate times came some good. Quite a lot for many women, as it happens.
Amanda James was a stay-at-home-mum and miner’s wife in 1984. ‘Before I was married I had left school at 16 with very few qualifications, and had worked in hairdressing and in a factory packing drill bits. As a mum, my life was based around shopping, visiting my mum or my mother-in-law and friends with my daughter.’ During and after the strike Amanda’s life ‘changed beyond all recognition.’
Mining communities in the 70s and 80s had more in common with society in the 1950s than the rest of the country. They were traditional in a way that the Daily Mail *spits on the floor * would whole-heartedly approve of – other than their left-leaning political tendencies, naturally. On the whole, men were the breadwinners and women were the homemakers. From the outset, it was clear to many that Thatcher was quite unlike her predecessors, and this wasn’t about higher wages or better working conditions, this was a fight for the very survival of the industry, for the unions, and it would be a fight to the death.
As a result women rallied quickly. They organised, and this meant that many women came out of the home and into the public arena for the first time. Women who previously had little experience of fundraising, running kitchens and speaking with those in public office found new skills. They mixed in circles hitherto unimaginable and learnt from each other.
Jean Nash, now 81, from Hemsworth, near Pontefract, organised and ran a support group, independent of the union. Jean gave speeches across the country and says: ‘I saw how the other half lived; I lodged with printers and professors. I were a little more informed than some at the start, but I definitely became more so.’ Amanda remembers: ‘Socialists and feminists rallied around the women’s support groups and it was there I first came into contact with those ideas. I had kind of always believed in equality between the sexes, but that was just about the extent of my thoughts on politics. Because of my first-hand experiences during the strike, I began to question much of what I had taken for granted.’ Women discovered their voice, and boy, did it prove to be loud. For some, there was to be no turning back.
Margaret Webster, a former secondary school teacher from Wales, was one of many women who rallied to support the miners and who had a profound influence on women like my character, Mandy. Margaret’s husband, Jim, was approached by the Secretary of the Point of Ayr NUM. A support group was formed at a meeting in a local pub, comprising a few members of the Labour Party, some from Plaid Cymru and an assortment of Marxists. ‘We made weekly food collections and street collections. I was very proud of our family who regularly helped with the food collections and other fund raising events,’ Margaret says. Supporting the miners was not without its pitfalls. ‘I learned to shrug off abuse and insults and found that the poorest were often the most generous contributors. It was inspiring to see how strong and resolute the miners wives and girlfriends were in the face of the hardships they were enduring.’
Jean has as many fond memories of this time as bitter ones. ‘The most usual and lasting friendships were forged. During time in London fundraising, we met printers from Wapping. They were fantastically supportive and when they came out against Murdock, we were there, right behind them on the picket lines.’ Later, Jean lived in London, though she has since returned to her roots in Yorkshire. She is still in touch with many former printers.
For Amanda the strike unlocked hitherto undiscovered potential. ‘It was because of these ideas and the people I talked to that I was convinced to go back into education. I’d never had much confidence or self-belief, but eventually I began to see I was just as good as the next person. I did A levels, a degree and a PGCE and became a secondary school teacher of history and sociology. Recently, I realised my life-long dream to be a writer.’ Now a successful author of romantic fiction, Amanda’s third novel, Somewhere Beyond The Sea is published in April.
A common casualty of this time was marriage. Jean was thinking of leaving her husband when the miners walked out. ‘Well, I couldn’t leave then, could I? I’d recently left my job through ill-health and I received sick benefit, so I stayed to support him and my sons – all miners – and my daughter and her miner husband. He’d have starved otherwise.’ But Jean’s story has a happy ending: she found true love. She met Len, another activist, and they married two years after the strike. They shared almost 20 years together before Len’s death.
Amanda’s marriage also broke down. ‘It is difficult to decide absolutely, but even if there had been no strike, I think we would probably have split anyway, though it was certainly a huge contributory factor. I lost a marriage and I am sure made life harder for my daughter in the long run. Of course, she was loved and her dad visited, but children do bear the brunt of any split.’
After the miners went back to work, there were women for whom life returned to something approaching normal-before-1984, but for others life would never be the same again. I wanted my novel and my lead, Mandy, to reflect the experience of many women of the strike, while ensuring she remained specific and not a general ‘everywoman’. And although her story was inspired by real-life experiences, she is a creation and there are many fictions in the story – the village to name but one. Mandy’s story ends on a surprising note – I hope– and like many of the women I spoke with hers is ultimately an uplifting tale.
Public Battles, Private Wars is published by Accent Press on 27 March.
Blurb: Miner’s wife Mandy is stuck in a rut. Her future looks set and she wants more. But Mandy can’t do anything other than bake and raise her four children. Husband Rob is a good looking drinker, content to spend his days in the small town where they live.
When a childhood friend – beautiful, clever Ruth – and her Falklands war hero husband, Dan, return to town, their homecoming is shrouded in mystery. Mandy looks to Ruth for inspiration, but Ruth isn’t all she appears.
Conflict with the Coal Board turns into war and the men come out on strike. The community and its way of life is threatened. Mandy abandons dreams of liberation from the kitchen sink and joins a support group. As the strike rumbles on relationships are pushed to the brink, and Mandy finds out who her true friends are.