Ian Clayton column: A wisdom of our own

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It was Sandy Denny, the folk singer, who wrote: “Who knows where the time goes?” and the beautifully poetic line: “Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming.”

I have been singing that song to myself on my morning walk with my dog recently as I remember the anniversary of the end of the miners’ strike.

It was this week 30 years ago when we applauded the men who proudly marched back behind bands and banners after their year-long struggle to protect their jobs and those of future generations.

Where does 30 years go and how different is the world we live in round here now? I remember my gran and grandad talking one night after the news had been on. There had been an announcement that the Coal Board wished to close no more than 20 pits.

My gran said: “They can lie and look at you” and my grandad said: “And one day all them silly beggers that believe them will know because what we are fighting for now will all come out.”

Of course we do know now that the pit closure programme was not about a phased downsizing but a complete destruction and we also learned the hard lesson of what goes on in communities when that happens.

There is a saying “what we don’t know now, we will know then” but of course we might never have believed then that an entire industry that once employed over a million men would have virtually disappeared in such a short period of time. And I don’t even think my old grandad, who seemed to know everything, would have believed what would happen.

In the 1930s George Orwell visited a pit and apart from the shock he had when he saw what some people have to do to earn a crust, he was impressed enough to write: “Our civilisation is founded on coal more completely than one realises.

“ The machines that keep us alive and the machines that make the machines are all dependent on the coal miner on whose shoulders everything is supported.”

I will never be swayed from my belief that the miners’ cause was a noble one, but in this last year or so I have come to know more and more that the part played by the women of the coal fields is where the real history is.

Yes, the strike is a story of men standing up, picketing and sacrificing wages, but it was miners’ wives, mothers and sisters who struggled to put food on tables, shoes on feet and suffered the indignity of abuse from some quarters of the media.

I have spent the last year or so working on a book about a group of working class women who came together as part of the Women Against Pit Closures movement and then went on to form the award winning Castleford Community Learning Centre as a response to lack of opportunity for families forced into debt and dole after the strike.

Margaret Handforth, who helped found Castleford Women’s Centre and still runs it today, told me: “I read in the papers that mining families were scum. I said are they talking about me because I had never been called that before, and I didn’t know anybody in my street who was that, I knew then that I had to do something.”

What Margaret did, along with many other women, was to join a soup kitchen and then after the strike, help the women stick together to learn.

Margaret says: “I learned a lot of lessons in that strike and it hit me that learning is the way forward if you don’t want things like that to happen to you again.”

We’ve produced a book that tells that story from soup kitchens to studying for university degrees. It’s called: Wisdom of our Own - Living and Learning since the Miners’ Strike and it takes its title from a line in a song the women sang at rallies: “We’ve strength enough and wisdom of our own.”

The stories in the book are all true and collected from nearly 100 people who have been involved in living and learning since the strike.

The book came back from the printer last week and by coincidence, one of the first people to get one was the Labour leader Ed Miliband.

I hope he will read it well and learn something a lot of us already know, that while the men put their heart and soul into the strike, the women were its backbone.