History Lesson

My weekend was spent in London and the highlight for me was a trip to see Billy Elliot the musical. I remember a few years ago watching the film with great interest particularly the parts about the miners strike, but the musical is a far better representation of these times.

When I was at school reading 1984 for my ‘O’ Level English I had no idea the year would have such an impact on my life. Billy Elliot is not just a musical it is a social history. There were many foreigners in the audience who I am sure did not really understand what was going on, or maybe thought that police riot scenes are exaggerated. But they aren’t. The writer of Billy Elliot obviously lived close to the miners strike – as I did. From the years of 1977 until my divorce in 1991 I was married to a coal miner. I lived through that time and I had forgotten what that life was like.

It was the orange overalls that did it. Each week I would boil my husband’s overalls in my hire purchase automatic. Tiny pieces of coal would get stuck in the rubber of the door. I would hang them out in all weathers just to get them out of the house. often bringing them in frozen from the line, like cardboard cut out. They never really were clean.

I never agreed with the miners strike. I hated all the leaders; MacGaughy, Scargill, Macgregor and of course Thatcher. Not one of them cared what happened to the families.

During the strike we had our rent paid and received a food voucher for the local supermarket. I would go armed with calculator and carefully buy a week’s shopping trying to use the whole amount of the voucher. No change was given, no non-groceries were allowed. My blood still ices over with the humiliation suffered at the hands of the checkout girls if you miscalculated and had to decide what to leave out of the basket, while other shoppers looked on.

It was during this time that I learned to economise and have now turned this skill into my How to Survive the Credit Crunch course. The single mothers I teach are fascinated with my hard luck stories.

It wasn’t until after the strike that many wives, myself included, found that Social Services were giving cash hand out to the men to help the families. In my case these handouts got no further than the Miners Welfare Club. How did I find out? As soon as the strike ended, Social Services billed us over a thousand pounds, the handouts were in fact loans and had to be paid back. Oh happy times.

There is a nostalgia attached to the demise of the coal industry that I will never understand. It was a terrible way to make a living. I remember my ex husband had pock marks all over his back from falling debris coming off the tunnel roof, the only time it cleared up was during his three week annual holiday. Many men were injured or lost their lives working in unsafe conditions. I admit that the small communities were unique but I don’t believe it was only the pits that kept the community spirit alive, the strike shattered communities as is documented in Billy Elliot.

With the right attitudes and the right resources communities can thrive again, they just need another enemy to fight. It would be good, considering the damage the coal carbon omissions make to our world, if their fight is against climate change.

On a brighter note, Billy Elliot is not all doom, the dancing is superb and the young actors are to be admired. And the sight of burly men dancing in tutus over those orange overalls made washing them all those years ago worth while – my ex husband should be spinning in his grave.

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