Shifting Horizons by Lynn Beaton
I went to Blidworth because of a chance meeting with some miners at Brighton during the week of the TUC Congress.
When I reached the Nottingham Bus Station I wasn’t at all surprised that there was no-one to meet me despite having been assured less than twenty hours before that there would be. I had even said to the man on the phone, whose thick Nottinghamshire accent I had a lot of trouble understanding, that if no-one was there I would just catch a bus. I was convinced that the striking community of Blidworth would have much more on their plates than to come into Nottingham to meet someone who had described herself as an Australian journalist, coming to write some articles for Australian journals. In fact I was afraid that my presence would be a nuisance and I determined to make myself useful and not become an added burden.
But my estimation of my reception couldn’t have been more wrong; as the bus pulled into Blidworth, I was shocked to realise that there were two women waiting there to meet me. Even more shocked to discover that these two women had been to Nottingham, but a communication error had sent them to the train station while I had arrived from London by coach. One of the things that amazed me most of all about Blidworth was the extent to which the striking community accepted me without question. I suppose that even if you think you are clear about the issues of something like the Miners’ Strike, you are still to some extent influenced by the media presentation of things. One of the biggest surprises in going to Blidworth, was the extent to which everybody was real. Some of my first impressions of life in the Strike Centre were the interactions between the adults and kids. I arrived there at about two o'clock, at three, some of the younger kids came in from school. It was like being in any house when the kids get home from school, except this wasn’t anybody’s house, it was a Strike Centre and because there were so many families there, there was, of course, inter-action between all the kids and all the adults. I realised I was witnessing an experiment in communal living. But this experiment had not been born, like others I'd known out of a conscious effort to change lifestyle, but out of a necessity to survive unexpected attack from a Government determined to smash the mining communities.
Because over half the village were scabbing, the only refuge was in the Centre.
Late one night Pauline and I sat in her kitchen as she described some of the events of the last few months. The house was in that state of eerie quiet that comes late at night when everyone else has gone to bed and you talk softly to make sure you don’t disturb them. The soft steady tones of Pauline’s voice were in stark contrast to the content of her words. Her descriptions of police intimidation the likes of which no-one in Britain could quite believe were not new to me, I'd read accounts in the left-wing press and since I'd first arrived in Blidworth nearly two weeks before I'd heard the stories a number of times. What made this night so powerful was that in those two weeks Pauline and some of the other women in the village had become close friends. The stories were no longer something that had happened to someone somewhere, I had lost the ability to maintain a distance between me and the stories because the striking community of Blidworth had become a part of my life. Later, as I lay snug in Pauline’s caravan I kept thinking that everybody should know what had happened here, in the way I now knew.
The next morning I asked Doreen and Pauline what they thought about me trying to write a book about it.
At first my suggestion was met with off-handed agreement, I knew the two women well enough to know that the off-handedness didn’t come from disinterest but from the fact that I was proposing yet another venture which neither of them could have imagined possible before the strike had started. The strike at this time was six months old, and the whole six months had been a series of challenges, which the women had met, but each accomplishment was accompanied by a disbelief that such things could happen.
Having decided we would write the book, we then had to decide how we were going to do it. I was determined that as much as possible the story must be told in Pauline and Doreen’s words so we started a series of long tape recorded interviews.
The interviews became a very special event in themselves, I think in a way we all enjoyed them, but they created moments Of tension as well. We'd spend hours sitting in one of the houses or in the caravan with the tape recorder between us. At times it was hard to make the time available to do it but Doreen and Pauline’s commitment to the project always made it possible.
I became part of the community and for six months, lived its ups and downs, its tensions and its energies.
In the normal course of living, we would often discuss things, and then, during an interview, I could bring it up. There was always a tension between interviewer and interviewee, but all of us somehow understood it as a part of the process and it never really got in our way. Doreen often expressed exasperation at my constant,
‘How did you feel about that?’
‘What were you doing just before that happened?’
‘What did you think about such and such at the time?’
She would yell, ‘How do you expect me to remember, it was four months ago.’ But she, would always remember, sometimes days later, she'd come and tell me some small detail that had slipped her mind during an interview, or answer a question I'd asked that she hadn’t been able to answer at the time. Pauline’s attitude to it was to laugh, she began to anticipate my questions.
‘I know.’ She'd say, ‘you want to know how I felt’. But the whole book was really only possible because of the friendship which grew between us all. For six months, our lives were intertwined. We lived together through what is undoubtedly one of the most significant periods of all our lives. The resultant closeness is more than mere friendship, I feel now as if I have two new families.
Months after I had the interviews I was still unsure about the best way to present them in writing. I wanted a book that would be accessible to all but I also wanted to maintain as much of the personalities of the two women as possible. It is after all their story and as much as possible I wanted it told in their words. But spoken and written language are really quite different and so I was forced to edit, rearrange and sometimes completely re-word the taped conversations. In doing so it was always uppermost in my mind to try and represent as accurately as possible the style of speech and the language of Doreen and Pauline. Obviously I have been unsuccessful to some extent because my own language and style of speech are so different from theirs. I don’t believe that it’s possible to capture the charm of the Nottinghamshire accent on paper, but I have tried to maintain some of the flow and character and I hope that the reader will not find my efforts too clumsy.
As each chapter was written it was immediately shown to the two women, a discussion always followed and often changes were made. I became very excited by this way of working, it seems to me quite novel as a method, at the same time it seems no coincidence that a new method of approach should be born in the heart of the Miners’ Strike which brought with it many social and cultural innovations.
I have presented the day to day lives of two women in the strike, in doing so I want to emphasize that Doreen and Pauline as two individuals involved in the strike have particular experiences and particular re-actions to them, and so we are not claiming that this story is necessarily representative of the story of all miners’ wives during the strike. At the same time I want to say that I could have chosen any two miners’ wives and found their stories just as exciting and inspiring. Doreen and Pauline are representative in so far that they show the incredible strength, determination and courage which was common to thousands of women during the dispute. They met challenges to their lives daily and in meeting them changed their entire world outlook, and in that they are also representative not only of thousands of miners’ wives, but of thousands of miners as well.
I am also aware that this book has a weakness in that it doesn’t attempt any analysis of the strike or even detail very many of the events which shaped the broader struggle. I would have like it to do this as well but I decided it was more important to have this printed and available for reading as quickly as possible. I'm sure in any case that much will be written about the strike, and perhaps my own contribution to that fund of knowledge will come later.
There was much in the lives of Doreen and Pauline during twelve months of the strike which has not been included, but I hope that the events which have been covered give an idea of the enormous range of experiences met by each woman. My main regret about these omissions is that I have done Doreen and Pauline a disservice because they actually coped with a lot more. The tensions of the strike made everyone’s personal lives quite delicate and the demands of the strike often left no time for the resolution of problems which arose.
For some time we have been aware that women are capable of much more than they are often given credit for but all of the women in the strike were capable of much more than I had ever believed any individual could tolerate. I don’t want to suggest that this was in any way magical or mystical. Their enormous capabilities came from their unswerving commitment to the fight they had taken on and their intuitive understanding of its importance as a watershed in British history. The situation demanded superwomen to deal with it and they rose to meet the demands put on them.
My final regret is that I couldn’t have written a book about the whole of the Blidworth striking community. Every one of them made a deep and lasting impression on me and every one of them earned my undying respect and admiration, but more, every one of them will live with me as a dear friend for the rest of my life. To the women, men and kids of that community how can I every say thank-you for allowing me to share your lives and for giving me your friendship. I have to say that although my life has seen many rich moments there is not another six months that compare with the six I spent in Blidworth.