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Richard Benson on his Easington Colliery commision

2 October 2015

On 11 July this year, approximately 150,000 people marched through the streets of Durham to the city’s old racecourse, taking part in the Durham Miners’ Gala.

There two interesting facts about this gathering. First, it will probably be the last Gala—it has been held most years since 1871—attended by miners still working in deep British coal mines. (The last one pit, Kellingley in Yorkshire, is due to close this winter.)

Second, the 150,000 attendance was a record. The Gala has consistently drawn crowds of 70,000 since the closure of the last mine in County Durham in 1993, but it is now growing even as the last of its original raison d’être disappears.

Evidently, then, there is growing interest in the ideas and values associated with the miners, and with the Trade Union movement. And there’s probably a particular reason that this interest finds expression in Durham.

Anyone who has been the Gala will know that it provides a unique way to commemorate, remember and talk about these ideas, because somehow its focus is on real people and families. Feeling and passion rather than “politics”, if you like.

Ideals as they were lived out. Or values as they’re put into practice, or something.

It’s hard to describe to be honest, but what I’m really getting is that when you go to the Durham Miners Gala you get a lump in your throat, and come away thinking there are better ways of living than you are led to believe by the telly. You feel that if those old ways of living and thinking could create an event as life-affirming as that, then we have a lot to learn from them.

In May the Durham Book Festival invited me to write about the old pit villages. What are they like now? How they feel about their history? What might they take from their past as they move forward? At the same time, they asked Keith Pattison, the photographer who took iconic pictures of Easington Colliery during the 1984-5 miners strike, to create an accompanying portfolio of images.

I knew a bit about mining communities because I was born in one, and many of my family were once miners, but County Durham is unique, and so over the summer Keith and I spent a lot of time there, mainly in Easington Colliery. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and particularly those in one of the Colliery’s long-established families, the Handys.

I wanted to talk about everyone in the village, and not just the miners themselves. That was because when people tell you why they’re proud to have come from a mining village, they will almost mention the strength of the community. The looking out for one another, the solidarity, the camaraderie. That comradeship encompassed everyone, men, women and children, young and old, and that was reflected in the stories I recorded.

More often than not people remembered mothers holding life together for everyone, and so I’ve talked a lot about their roles. In the summer of 1984 Keith shot a photograph—see the image in full below—of Gill Handy (left) with her children Joanne and Kate (seated) talking to a friend in Easington Colliery, with riot police looking on in the background. We traced the women, recreated the photograph, and interviewed them about how they thought life in the area had changed over the last thirty years.

Joanne and Kate were married with children of their own now; their thoughts were both unpredictable and moving. Of course life had moved on, they said. But some of the values they now sought to pass on to their own kids had their roots in traditions reaching back centuries.

 

Richard Benson and Keith Pattison’s event There is a Light That Never Goes Out will be held on Sunday 11 October, 1pm-2pm, at Palace Green Library (Wolfson Gallery). To find out more about the event and details of how to book, follow this link to the Programme.