Twenty five years on – or: Ynysbwl, its part in my downfall

March 5, 2009 at 2:09 pm 1 comment

A still from 'A Diary For Timothy'

A still from 'A Diary For Timothy'

So, it’s twenty five years ago today that the Miner’s strike kicked off. I’m not going to write a fiery opinion piece, because other people are better qualified than me to do that. Certainly many more people have the right to, on both sides. This post is going to be more anecdotal than polemical. But just as Steve has had his Meso Soup moment, this anniversary needs marking for me. In a bizarre, indirect way, the Miner’s Strike changed my life and it’s why I do the work I do.

I’m pleased the Today programme has marked it in style – albeit without Scargill, who is nowhere to be found and would appear to have adopted the Osama Bin Laden approach to media relations.

As for Norman Tebbitt I was expecting a je ne regrette rien moment. Or at least a je ne regrette pas grands choses. Turns out that regrets, he has a few. Chief among them was the terrible effects the strike and its aftermath had on pit communities.

I don’t remember the strike, of course. Twenty five years ago I had just turned two. I grew up in the Sussex countryside and there aren’t many pits round there. My abiding memory of public opinion in the eighties was of total incomprehension and frustration: what was the fuss all about? Why not just become an accountant or a dentist or start your own business? Why not take the opportunity to get out?

But my parents were both born in shipbuilding cities far, far away from Sussex, and the course of their families’ history had been deeply altered by the slow death of that industry. Their reaction was mostly sadness, spiked with a sort of Dave Spart fury. I never really understood why.

It was a BBC Wales assignment that changed that. I’d found myself in South Wales as a trainee, and knew virtually nothing about the area. In classic English style, I didn’t think I was missing much. It was a Lesser North: grimness without the grit.

A cameraman came to me suggesting we work together on an unusual project. It was the sixtieth anniversary of Humphrey Jenning’s seminal wartime docu-essay, ‘A Diary For Timothy’. One of the four home-front heroes he had featured was a Welsh miner from a tiny village in the valleys. Why not go and retrace Jennings’ steps?

It was a bit arty and would take me out of the office, so I jumped on it. We started by watching the original. Jennings was, by all accounts, a classic One Nation Tory of the old school; his films feature more bicycling spinsters than is defensible, even for a wartime propagandist. So his treatment of Goronwy Jones and his fellow miners is quite remarkable.

The camera doesn’t flinch from showing just how horrific conditions in the Welsh could be. A few minutes in, there’s an explosion and Goronwy is hauled to the surface badly wounded. His wife and large family live with the constant fear he won’t come home that evening.

Jennings even gives considerable airtime to Goronwy’s formidable brand of socialism; even as he’s being patched up and heading off down the mines again, he and his comrades are plotting welfare reform and the NHS, vowing that peacetime is going to mark a more compassionate, mutually supportive future. But he worries for the families that have lost so many loved ones, and whether peace might bring change that will also bring the death of his community.

So what did happen to Goronwy’s village of Ynysbwl? In 2005 we tracked down his grandson, and I set about interviewing him. Goronwy remained a union man all his life, and regarded the NHS as the greatest achievement of the post-war years. His grandson was furiously proud of his grandad and his friends’ life and work, and clearly felt he was the inheritor of a remarkable tradition, a community that he was lucky to have been born into. These people with literally nothing had come together to create a movement of extraordinary dignity and power, nothing less than world-changing.

But. I and the cameraman walked up the hill to replicate a shot at the beginning of Jenning’s film, a panorama of the valley with the pithead in the distance. The pit was pretty much gone, of course. So too were the mountainous slag heap and the clouds of soot. Time moves on, I thought. The pit had ceased to be viable, and besides, even Goronwy was clear it was a terrible way to make a living. The Welsh Valleys are actually breathtakingly beautiful minus the industrial filth.

“Your Grandad was quite worried for the future of Ynysbwl, even during the war,” I said to the grandson. “Do you think he was right?”

Jones Junior’s answer wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I was familiar with the IPE and environmental arguments why deep coal mining just couldn’t continue in the UK. I had also known a few Spartists in my time at Edinburgh, and had had a few run-ins with the Scottish Socialists on the subject of mining. I was beyond caring about the unreasonable Tories and the unreasonable Unions.

I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially he said that what really hurt, what was so insurmountable, was that being a man had got so much harder now the pit had closed. This made me sit up.

The only work that was to be had was away from the village along the M4 corridor, and it was mostly in call centres. There was this proud tradition of extraordinarily tough men looking over your shoulder, and you were supposed to go and sit with a headset and undergo “empathy training” on a rolling short-term contract. Women were just better at it, and male unemployment outstripped female worklessness considerably. Jones Junior considered his generation of Valleys men to be lost – and lost to their sons and partners too.

When I got back to the office, I started going through the stories of the last couple of weeks. A JRF report saying Merthyr Tydfil was the worst place to be a child in Britain. Police records showing a child suicide rate five times that of the UK average. A circuit judge complaining that Valleys juries gave wifebeaters the benefit of the doubt. Something was starting to come together for me.

It had never occurred to me that our welfare was about more than voter turnouts, trade balances and the daily press. Ynysbwl and the Jones dynasty showed that human relations and they way we belong to one another can change lives for good and ill. The events of 1984-1985 had disturbed all that. 

And that’s how I became obsessed with understanding how communities can work together for a common future, and with supporting that Goronwian sense of solidarity. The film never aired in the end; the slot kept on being used for something else and I moved away. But it’s how I became a pointy-headed policy wonk.


Entry filed under: cohesion, social capital. Tags: , , , .

Who needs mortgages anyway? Heroes

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. William Shaw  |  March 10, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I think you’re dissing Humphrey Jennings unfairly. He also founded Mass Observation… although fell out majorly with Tom Harrison who turned it into a kind of market research organisation and lost the more empathetic, poetic quality of the project which was clearly – from what you say, Jennings’ input. May 12th is I think one of the great pieces of neglected non-fiction, and puts him up there as the UK’s unlikeliest answer to Studs Terkel.

    Really great post, by the way.


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