Recognising Kosovo*

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On Friday, the Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared independence from Spain. Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy responded by dismissing Catalan premier Carlos Puigdemont, and imposing direct rule on the region.

It’s hard to say what will happen next, but it is very likely that Catalonia is in for a rough ride as it seeks self-determination. Rajoy has shown he isn’t afraid to spray and pepper rubber bullets along Las Ramblas. The USA, the EU, France, Germany and the UK have all said they will not recognise an independent Catalonia. The reaction of others will likely shape what place Catalonia would take if it enters the world stage, solo.

The last European country to take the plunge was Kosovo. On 17th February 2008, it announced it had split from Serbia and was now going it alone.

Catalonia is not Kosovo. The circumstances are very different. But the response of the nations of Earth to Kosovo highlights how the recognition of new nations has far more to it than the situation itself in the region in question.

 

No, Never, Not in a Million Years

Kosovo independence

Source: Telegraph

Many nations have viewed Kosovo’s declaration with vanity, fear and loathing. Might Kosovo’s audacity encourage dastardly separatists within our own borders?

WE CANNOT ALLOW THIS!

Nations with diverse regions that varied cultures, languages, religions and fortunes have been especially vulnerable to this way of thinking, as are those whose borders hid ancient tensions brushed under the rugs of history. Spain sits in both categories, and refuses to recognise Kosovo. On the record, this stance is in stern defence of international law and the UN Charter. Spain, as it showed the other week, takes such things very seriously. It is a poorly-kept secret that it is worried that Catalonia and the Basque Country might call foul on any concession to a secessionist movement outside of Spanish borders. In 2012, Rajoy even said that Spain refuses to recognise Kosovo because “it is what suits the general interest of the Spanish.”  The way things are going in the Pyrenean shadows, don’t expect a birthday card from Madrid soon, Pristina.

They weren’t alone in this. China, Argentina, Israel. Moldova, Georgia, Cyprus. Many of these ghosting characters are linked by their involvement in what some call “Frozen Conflict Zones” – geographical war hangovers – unresolved political disputes permafrosted upon land, homes, societies. They might have longstanding claims upon groups that have sought to govern themselves as autonomous, or else might be part of a geographical tug-o-war with another nation-state over the sovereignty of a region, whose own ideas of to which flag they pledge their allegiance are but a sub-plot. Imperial borders were often drawn on sand, and reinforced only by the bayonet. Sudanese or Yugoslav fractures exhibit what can happen when the coercive rug of the metropole is pulled out from under foot. A conglomerate state like China views separatism with great caution.

And the Kingdom of Spain? Founded under the marriage of Castile and Aragon. Strengthened in the inquisition and expulsion of those not bound to Christ. Made rich by Cortes’ sword that cut open golden Aztec veins, but eventually chased back into Iberia by forces that left Spain in dust. Perhaps, for many a Spanish patriot, a Catalonian schism would represent the last act in this retreat, a final nail in Spain’s imperial coffin, the confirmation that their pride in a nation past is no longer present.

Why hang onto a nation, for nostalgia’s sake?

 

This fence I’m sitting on is really comfortable…

Artsakh – Source: news.am

The region of Artzakh is currently drawn on the Azerbaijani map. It is 95% Armenian, and its flag resembles the Armenian banner, altered by a thick brush on Microsoft Paint (RIP). Formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, it essentially rules itself. Azerbaijan, however, has not recognised it, and it is therefore unsurprising that it has turned a blind eye to the Republic of Kosovo as well. What’s weirder is that Armenia hasn’t recognised Artzakh or Kosovo either.

Geopolitical allegiances have a huge part to play in the recognition of nations. There’s quite a club of countries that has refused to acknowledge Kosovo out of respect to its good ol’ pal, Serbia. Some of these might be expected, such as Belarus or Cyprus. But perhaps others might surprise you. Algeria, Angola, the DRC, for example.

“We are our Mountains” – Artsakh. Source: Armenpress.am

Who knew Serbia had so many friends?

Again, we cannot forget how the very existence of Kosovo reverberates back onto so many nations with fragile pasts. Alongside, some nations may wish to tread carefully to avoid stoking Serbia’s gigantic neighbour to the northeast. Armenia, for example, publicly welcomed Kosovo’s step, but avoided granting an official welcome to the family of nations so as not to irritate Azerbaijan, Russia, or Artzakh. Better to recognise everybody at once, rather than pick and choose.

In other cases, the decision not to recognise may be guided by nowt but a noble sense of loyalty to the Serbs,
which is sweet kosovo text 1
if perhaps not the romantic gesture one would like to see in the realm of high global politics, where blind loyalty to anything can get you up all sorts of creeks.

On the other hand, some of Kosovo’s earliest friends benefited from its independence, alongside those who sincerely believed in its self-determination. The USA and the UK quickly backed it up, alongside much of NATO, having played a key part in the Kosovan war and the defeat of Milosevic.

Legacy management 101 – look! What a lovely intervention! We made a state out of it, dontyaknow.

If Catalonia goes it alone, it might find friends in odd places, and gain unexpected enemies. A lot of this may have little to do with Catalonia itself.

 

I’ll do it this afternoon!

Flags yes

All those who have recognised Kosovo.

That brings us to our last group. Those who haven’t quite got round to it yet. The most recent country to recognise Kosovo was Bangladesh, in February of this year. There has been a steady trickle of recognitions after the initial flurry of ’08. As of October 2017, 111 countries consider Kosovo a sovereign nation. This tally matters. Some nations, including Spain, have in the past often justified their refusal by noting how few nations had done the deed. The higher that figure goes, the less valid that argument has become. In recent years, some nations have recognised Kosovo declaring that they have changed their minds over the matter, or else citing that the trend has changed in favour of Kosovan independence and they don’t want to miss out before all the good yoyos have been bought.

This change has allowed Kosovo to find its feet somewhat on the international stage, helped somewhat by the backing of large swathes of NATO and the EU, and the USA. Although Serbia officially still considers Kosovo part of its territory, it has largely accepted the 2013 Brussels Agreement between the two groups and has largely normalised relations with Kosovo. This has allowed Kosovo to participate more easily in UN activities, albeit often placed with an asterisk next to its name, to give the word “Kosovo*” a dual symbolism, representing either –

the Republic of Kosovo,

or

Kosovo, a really really autonomous part of Serbia

– depending on your persuasion. Even Russia has softened its stance, although this has much to do with its activities in South Ossetia, and in the Crimean Peninsula, wherein Moscow argued that if Kosovo had the right to unilaterally declare self-determination, so too did the Crimea (which was of course, unilateral. No Russians here, what Russians, where?)

kosovo text 2Perhaps the remaining collection of nations are merely waiting for the herd to decide when it will cross the river. Perhaps they’ve got better things to do, or more important things to worry about, than recognising a diminutive, landlocked nation in South-East Europe. The weight of numbers, however, is very important in a nation’s journey to global recognition. Certain nations, such as the USA or Russia, are triple word scores.

 

Lines in the dirt

Source: World Atlas

It might all sound like a board game played on a 1:1 scale map. But the verbal barrages can so quickly beget rubber bullets, and rubber can soon itself turn to lead. Some may understandably point toward the fear that nations may continue to exponentially slice themselves in two, on ethnicity, religion, history, or economics (ever since 2008, for example, there has been talk that the Serbian-dominated North Kosovo may seek autonomy from Pristina). Is it only empire, they might ask, that forces communities to co-exist and intertwine?

Others may look at how the world is growing increasingly uncertain at the same time as it pulls itself closer together through technology and the border-sapping forces of neoliberalism. Groups may look out at the window at the gathering clouds and think, at this instance, it’s better to go at it alone.

Or maybe it’s all too facile to think that another line in the dirt, this time between Barcelona and Madrid, will necessarily lead to further divisions in a fracturing Europe. Kosovo’s ongoing journey to recognition shows that there’s a great deal going on under the surface in any separatist movement, and its burgeoning relationships with the world outside. Perhaps Kosovo shows that most nations are more concerned with what separatism might represent than what it actually causes.

Flags no

Those who have not recognised Kosovo, or are yet to do so.

Perhaps we should be less wed to the notion of the permanence of borders. Perhaps it is just as parochial to insist that the map remains the same as it looked when we were children than to draw new lines and erase others.

Some borders, such as along the shore of the Etang Saumâtre between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, change daily as the water levels rise and fall. There are many still disputed. Some are deliberately porous, others are guarded with lethal force, or else are to be marked by great walls. But even the most ancient of borders have crumbled many times. Human societies never sit still. Nearly every society in history has been host to travellers, migrants and traders, explorers and conquerors alike, who continually puncture or remodel the little barriers we like to draw between ourselves.

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“What a Time to be Alive”

 

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The current Rustler’s microwavable meat advert depicts a bloke who is sat at his bland table in his bland living room, about to have dinner. He’s in the November of his years, closer to St Andrew than Guy Fawkes, and as he reaches for his snack, his life flashes before his eyes. It is a life unfulfilled and failed, where every dream is a lie, and every hope rescinds upon him, jading him ever further. Every cultural and political movement is but a moment in time, a spark of promise quickly extinguished. Beaten at school, waiting in line in soup kitchens, beaten by police batons in ‘60s peace marches, bored and jaded from then on. No other fad or movement would awaken him again. Until now. You see, it was ok that this struggle was pointless, because along the way somebody figured out that you could irradiate a soggy roll encompassing a lump of indeterminable meat to an acceptable temperature, cutting down dinner preparation time by up to half an hour. What a time to be alive.

The advert is called “80 years of torment.” I guess it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek but, after these last few months, for an activist soul it is trolling your effort, your ideals and your hope. It is telling you to GIVE UP, forget any such pretence of a better tomorrow, because the only progress is in rapid-ready snack food. Maybe pop a tub of pringles open for dessert – they are right there. What even is fruit anyway. A waste of time, that’s what. You don’t have time to prepare a proper meal, what with all the working you have to do. It’s alright though, because the politicians have your back. They are working late too, and what salt of the earth they are, they are also having a burger for dinner. No Rustler’s for them though, they have sent for a gourmet, onion-ringed affair straight from the heart of Dalston, moulded from a hand-fed beast that, before it too was sacrificed for the cause, had a bigger home than you, and a better diet to boot. It was sped to the Royal Mile through the streets of London by a brave cyclist, darting through the taxis and the tourists on her less-than-zero hours contract, risking her life and others to make sure the burger gets to the Chancellor of the Exchequer before it loses too much temperature. 

(Actually, he’s not Chancellor any more is he. He’s a tabloid hack, or a professor, or something.)

He can eat what he wants at whatever job he wants, because he is free to do so. That’s what they say they are about, freedom. They have so much freedom already, and all they want is more. They have always been mercantile, freedom is the silver in the mines of Potosi, the secret Porcelain recipe from Jingdezhen, grab it while it’s hot and hold on for dear life. You? You have to earn your freedom. As long as you live the right way, you too can have freedom. Put aside a penny a day for retirement, and you too can enjoy a microwavable burger when you are old. It’s triple-locked.

All this talk about liberty and they don’t even know what it is – they think it cannot be created, only taken away. So that’s what will happen next, now that they have purchased popular consent. Trickle down. The poor don’t want opportunity, they want stability, an unchanging, uncompromising dourness on the face of the Commons. A two-track broken record is comforting, when your work status is precarious, your rent fluctuates with the seasons – waiting for the eviction notice – “I’m sorry, we want families and young professionals to move into your dilapidated, ladybird-infested bedsit” – or the fire alarm. You never quite know who is waiting for you around the corner, these days. Do you feel safe? Not me. The promise of further change? Well that’s just terrifying. A microwave is reassuring, you know exactly when the beep will chime, you know exactly when your meal will reach lukewarm bliss.

It was a question of taking Britain back to the ‘70s, or maybe to the Age of Empire. Bring back the workhouse. Restart the Crusades, at a push. It would be good if everybody stopped time-travelling for a moment and looked outside the window. Capital looks after its initiates, the rest of us make their coffee and bring banquets to the door of another Junior Vice President. It’s in the nature of service. I love microwaves after long days, rip off the plastic and away we go. Technology isn’t simply there to improve our lives, but to make it possible to get more out of our bones. Afternoon tea allowed fourteen hour shifts, smartphone order apps allows two hour delivery. A paper-over-cracks health service allows a higher retirement age for those who haven’t spent their time living the right way, with chronic conditions as colleagues because ATOS said so. What a time to be alive.

You don’t get it, do you? Your grandparents never had a microwave. They had steady work, though. And here you have a smartphone. They aren’t for the poor, so you must be rich. Clive of India didn’t have a smartphone, and he never complained. Benefits aren’t for everybody, so they should be for nobody at all. People dressed in grey with grey countenance under miserable skies only see the world in blacks and whites, with us or against. A toasted Panini costs more than a week of mobile service, wealth has always been relative, dumbass. Thank you Rustler’s for feeding the people, one coronary at a time, relieving the pressure on our darling NHS. The population is exploding, and you want to keep people alive? You monster.

This is a time to celebrate. Haul your arse to the hypermarket (it might even be on offer), or your friendly neighbourhood food bank, take your meal from the shelf, remove all packaging, and wait for the beep. Take a seat, pick up the damp luxury that greets you, and eat every last bite. Don’t you dare complain you precious little soul about your life of diminishing returns, and remember the immortal words of Harold MacMillan – “you’ve never had it so good.”

 

“This is the Past That’s Mine:” Manic Street Preachers Play Everything Must Go at the Royal Albert Hall, 17th May 2016

manics dfl

“See this watch she gave me, it still ticks away, the days I’m claiming back for me.”
Eels, The Medication is Wearing Off

Into the Royal Albert Hall on a sticky Tuesday evening, to watch the Manic Street Preachers play Everything Must Go, 20 years after it was first released. This was their second anniversary tour in as many years. Last time out they reprised The Holy Bible, to commemorate the two decades that had passed since Richey James Edwards had disappeared, his car abandoned near the Severn Bridge.

I’m suspicious about bands playing albums live – usually it’s a money-spinning, pusheaded indulgence into their past but the Manics, as I wrote of the Holy Bible tour, are not the sort of band to partake in such hollow reprisals of now-irrelevant back catalogues. Instead, The Holy Bible’s resurrection was a scathing reminder of how Richey’s rebuke of End of History triumphalism remains dishearteningly pertinent.

My first reaction to hearing about the EMG tour was excitement – it’s one of my favourite albums, and I have often turned to it in moments of grief. I gave my ticket in knowing I was in for a great show, but I wasn’t quite sure why the Manics were dragging their 1996 kicking and screaming back into the present. It made sense, somehow, that if you bring back the Holy Bible you have to follow it up with Everything Must Go. But whereas the Holy Bible externalises anger to rip down the hypocrisy of those who benefit from a violent society, Everything Must Go is an internal struggle that finds the band wrestling with the pain of Richey’s decline and disappearance. After a twenty-year journey in which the bereft Manics have marked a new path as a trio, why had Nicky, James and Sean decided to revisit the raw emotion of this schism? Surely, it wasn’t just to go through the motions, in a pale sequel to last years’ tour?

Far from it.

There was a (very) small part of me afraid that without the enduring pertinence of the Holy Bible Tour, and the album’s association with mid-90s Britpop nostalgia, the EMG reprisal could fall short and end up an overweight, out-of-date impersonation of a moment that was no longer there. At the NEC in Birmingham (yes, I was there too – long story), there was a sense that the band themselves were concerned that it would be read this way, and on more than one occasion James thanked the crowd for coming to listen to them, and hoped that “this hasn’t ruined the memory of the album for them.” This uneasiness was itself an echo of last year, where the Manics were hedging themselves, eager to explain that to play the Holy Bible was a personal (and difficult) necessity, but still far removed from self-indulgence.

However, in the Royal Albert Hall, I found this fear to be grossly misplaced. Everything Must Go was, in 1996, a journey taken by the trio downwards toward the darkness that had enveloped their friend, alongside the upward steps toward the sun within which is held the strength to live in grief. In this way, it is the thematic as well as the chronological successor to the Holy Bible.

Richey posthumously provides five lyrics to Everything Must Go. His words in the Holy Bible were fuelled by anger – railing against the violence of humanity, the music and the lyrics jettisoned his anguish. But there were warnings, noticeably in Die in the Summertime (“scratch myself with a rusty nail, sadly it heals”), that this was only a temporary solution, the last flares of a dying star before it collapses in upon itself. The EMG songs that come from Richey’s pen find the lyricist in a concerning empathy with the victims of the societal cruelty he documented in the previous album. What unites his characters on EMG is their fate – they are trapped, consumed by their own hand or by that of others. If “man kills everything,” these are its victims, the Removables, or those who are caved in by the reality that surrounds them. The Elvis Impersonator who opens the album with limited face paint can rise no further from his life as a Blackpool sideshow, existing only in the drunken eyes of Lancashire nightlife.

“It’s so fucking funny, it’s absurd.”

Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky, seeing through the bars of the decrepit, caged zoo, sympathises with the captive chimpanzee, who has nothing but a tyre swing to entertain the masses that rattle her cage, the Simian cousin of the Blackpool impersonator. The Girl Who Wanted to be God nods to Sylvia Plath, “spat out” by Faster’s protagonist, but now a touchstone for our tortured lyricist in his final moments. Track 3 talks of the life of photographer Kevin Carter – a true story of the man who won a Pulitzer Prize for his voyeuristic photograph of a malnourished black child being stalked by a vulture, who took his own life – unable to live with the terrible things he had sat and watched, like an ecologist, waiting for the right moment to capture for his fortune. Richey’s characters are trapped in a cycle of pain, and death forms the only escape.

For Nicky Wire, staring at a blank piece of paper in 1995, his friend vanished, he had to attempt to grasp the darkness that had taken Richey, and from there forge a path for himself and his band out of their grief. How do you comprehend a suicide? To attempt to empathise with this agony is to plot a journey toward the pain that overwhelmed a loved one. In his songs Nicky is often his own protagonist. In Australia, Nicky finds himself subsumed by a rising tide of depression as he tries to make sense of the past few months – “I don’t know if I’m tired, I don’t know if I’m ill” – and he responds by fleeing, as far away from everything as he can possibly get, to recover. Live in Birmingham, he confessed that while he was writing this lyric, he only made it as far as Torquay.

Nicky’s songs are filled with determination in the face of this pain – there is a growing understanding that he cannot run forever, and an acceptance that if he is to be alive, he must live with the chronic pain of losing his friend to suicide. In Enola/Alone, he concentrates on the comfort provided by the simplest of actions, walking on the grass, and taking in every moment of being alive, finding the strength to look at an image of his lost friend and hold on to a better memory. The title track has James screaming the line – “Just need to be happy” – like a tortured mantra, if he sings it with enough feeling, it *might* just come true.

Interiors gives us the story of the artist Willem de Koonig, who continued to paint as Alzheimer’s overtook him. It is the keystone of the album, of a man who, through all his suffering, held on to the very fabric of being alive for as long as he possibly could. As the final solo of the album rang out through the hall, a ticker tape explosion fell upon us. Red, white and green. On the screen appeared the Stanley Kubrick quote “however vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” James later appeared with his acoustic guitar, and played his cover of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, the first thing he recorded after Richey vanished, in a final act of defiant existence. The crowd all knew what this meant.

“What’s the point of always looking back?”

In some ways, the Manics were, this night, once again replenishing an old album from the past into the present. “We’ve brought it back from the brink,” James explained, by which he meant from the brink of falling into the dustbin of Britpop history. Nicky recalled in the Guardian that Richey used to love the confusion of it all. And he of all people would have appreciated the contradiction of the Manics finding mainstream success with this record. It wasn’t the intention to sound like Britpop’s cousin – A Design for Life was in fact a response to songs like Parklife that hollowed out and vulgarised British working class life. Yet for a band attempting to confront a friend’s suicide head on, to be “co-opted into Britpop,” placed into the same bracket as nonsensical Noel Gallagher lyrics must have smarted. Bringing EMG “back from the brink” is a personal necessity for the Manics, so that the grief they express in this record is not diluted or whitewashed.

Everything Must Go did not need salvage in the same way the Holy Bible did – there is no social criticism it provides more scathing than was given in 1996. But it needed to be played this night, and played in full, all the same. In many respects this is the true anniversary of Richey’s passing, the moment when the band accepted his disappearance, and to wrench open the scars left by the nihilism of the Holy Bible requires Everything Must Go to restart the process of patching up old wounds.

Everything Must Go is a triumph – for Nicky, James and Sean – and for all of us who have been wrought by bereavement and ploughed on nonetheless. But this album is not a moment of happiness, and it is not only Britpop association that threatens its meaning. To scream that “everything must go” is not to heal yourself of grief, rather it is to accept that time cannot heal old wounds, it only numbs. Further Away – “feel it fade into your childhood,” was this night adorned with images of Big Pit, eroded Welsh beaches, and eroding colliery towns. “The further away I get from you…the harder it gets.”

This acceptance that grief never disappears, but only fades, adds to the tragedy of the record with each passing anniversary. This is why they bring Everything Must Go into the 21st Century. To reprise the immediacy of bereavement is to defy the numbing of time, and to recall the pain they felt in losing a friend is to recall why they loved him in the first place.

“I’ve been here for much too long. This is the past that’s mine.”

Strangely, there was comfort in this message. This was not misery tourism, but healing. Many in the audience empathised with this pain – I don’t mean those old enough to miss Richey too – but those who knew you carry grief with you, wherever you go, and in some form this is a way you can keep the love you had for that person alive. There is comfort in sound, as another Welsh band – Feeder – proclaimed when they lost a band member to suicide. That night, there were lighter moments too – in the joy of Show Me the Wonder, and Nicky’s eccentric liner notes between songs. “This is not the only anniversary we are celebrating. Ten years ago, I Killed the Zeitgeist.”

In the Albert Hall, the music rolled through the floor, bounced off the roof of the auditorium, as, after the album was played and passed, we all belted out Roses in the Hospital, in tribute to Richey and to David Bowie, in a punk rock Last Night of the Proms, where the Welsh dragon was draped over the balcony in lieu of the Union flag.

That night, the chords were loud and simple, the melodies catchy yet plain, not in mimicry of Britpop, but in contrast to the nuance of the Holy Bible – it is raw, emotive music, contradictory yet plain – no surface and all feeling. Catharsis needs simplicity.

I Never Died, Says He: Tayo Aluko in “Call Mr. Robeson”

This blogpost is about a Performance by Tayo Aluko in Call Mr Robeson that I saw at UCLAN’s Media Innovation Centre on the 14th April 2016 (but this isn’t a review). More info of Aluko’s shows can be found here. GO SEE IT!

Tayo and Paul.png

Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen. Nobody Knows My Sorrow.

Most people know of Paul Robeson in passing. They know the actor, the singer – Paul Robeson the performer. But less is said of Paul Robeson the socialist and the activist. This is a huge part of the story of this most famous of American early-20th Century performers, and it is this element of Robeson’s story that has seen the legacy of this artist erased from our collective historical memory.

Tayo Aluko is working to correct this. From Carnegie Hall, to this little Conference room in Preston where I watched him perform, Aluko has taken his one-man show, Call Mr Robeson, across the world.

“Call Mr Robeson” – the announcement blares from the back of the room, as the voice of McCarthy’s cronies call us to attention in the courthouse pews. Mr Robeson stands in front of us, proud once more, to defend himself against the charges of communism and un-American activities.

We are with him, adopted Welsh miners, trade unionists, forerunners of civil rights, fans of his music – we witness this trial alongside him with a solidarity Robeson sorely lacked in his own life. For over an hour we watched Robeson take us through his life, in a scene that became his living room, decorated by portraits, trinkets, records, a flag of the International Brigade, the Stars and Stripes, and a Welsh flag reminding him of the Valleys where he felt most loved. We nod along as Robeson answers each silly charge with blissful defiance, because we now know where he had come from, and why he stood before us today in the courthouse.

 

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night, Alive as You and Me

DSC_1424

The Stage is (blurrily) set for “Call Mr Robeson.”

Aluko isn’t a diminutive man, but on this makeshift stage he grew into the mighty stature of Robeson, the son of a Minister born into (and escaped from) the chattels of slavery, the only black footballer at Rutgers, sacked on his first start by both sides, who stood up and carried on.

Robeson, the star of Show Boat, the Emperor Jones, Othello and Toussaint Louverture, fell afoul of those who saw him as coalescing with the enemy as well as those who wished to keep him down. Marcus Garvey saw him as little more than a minstrel, but Aluko crafts a different figure, too subversive in his patriotic turns and too captivating upon the stage to be regarded as anything less than a powerful exponent of black excellence.

Offside, stage right, stood the imagined presence of Eslanda Robeson (née Goode), Paul’s manager and wife. Essie had no lines in the one man show, but she stood over Paul at all times, initially supporting him financially, reminding him where he had come from, urging him to stay firm, challenging him to be more than just Paul Robeson, the performer. It was a tumultuous relationship, and Aluko refused to shy away from Paul’s frequent affairs and troubles within his marriage. Essie’s journey, although silent, was very much a part of the performance – the peaks and turmoils of this tale were, after all, felt and moulded by Essie as much as by Paul.

Robeson performed Ol’ Man River throughout his career – and he and Essie tinkered with the lyrics as they slowly divorced the song’s association from Show Boat and made it a Robeson standard. As Todd Decker has written, the lyrical alterations change the feel of the song from resignation to defiance, from a song of longing to a call to action.

“You get a little drunk and you land in Jail” becomes “You show a little grit and you land in jail,”

“I must keep on struggling until I’m dyin’” becomes “I must keep on fighting until I’m dyin’.”

 

Sing it Loud, Sing it Proud

Where did you hear of Paul Robeson? Was it in the booming rendition of Ol’ Man River? In echoes of his celebrated turn as Othello that shook through London theatrical circles? Unless you are of mining stock, you are less likely to be familiar with Robeson the socialist and tireless, unapologetic activist for global equality, and for dignity for black Americans. Aluko was asked, after the event, how he came to create Call Mr Robeson. He tells us that as a younger man he sung in front of a Merseyside audience in his powerful baritone, reminding one audience member of the star of Show Boat. The listener approached Aluko, asking him if Robeson had influenced him and if he sung any of his numbers. This, Aluko tells us, was the first he’d heard of the man. Later on, a book on the life of Paul Robeson found its way into Aluko’s hands at Liverpool Library, and that was that.

Myself, I knew of Robeson from a young age, mainly because my dad would occasionally break out spontaneous renditions of Ol’ Man River. I knew nothing of his social activism until my friend sent me an mp3 of “Let Robeson Sing” by the Manic Street Preachers. It’s the best song by a long way on a pretty terrible album, and quickly tells the story of Robeson’s “voice and vision” and his suppression by the House Commission for Un-American Activities, who confiscated his passport, placed FBI agents within his shadow at all times, and embarked upon a campaign of ostracism until Robeson became all-but-forgotten.

It may seem a strange way for someone to learn of Robeson, but as Aluko told us, among groups such as the Welsh miners and trade unionists, for whom Robeson did so much, he was never forgotten.

 

The Freedom Train

Back in Preston, we cannot turn away from any moment of Robeson’s life – we are there in the front row of his performances, and we are there with the marooned performer in the years of his lowest ebbs. Aluko takes us through the most difficult moments of Robeson’s existence, his exclusion, his attempted suicide, and the loss of Essie to cancer, with visceral intensity. On a rainy evening in Preston, we are witness to the tragedy of Robeson’s life as we are to his spine-tingling vocals and world-conquering successes. We watch as the ageing Robeson comes to terms with his anonymity as the Civil Rights Movement accelerates in the 1960s. Malcolm X is gunned down, and Dr. King follows. A young reporter traipses around Harlem asking the “man on the street” for their thoughts of their activism, and in this moment Robeson becomes just another black New Yorker.

“Looks like I’ve been assassinated too,” the old singer quips.

Aluko later tells us of the theory that Malcolm was assassinated just as he began to consider international socialist ideas. As Martin’s dream increasingly took on notions of black liberation through economic redistribution alongside cultural anti-racism, he was taken out too. As the great pillars of American civil rights began to speak back at the infiltration of institutional racism within every aspect of American society, they became more dangerous than ever before. “In a way, they became too much like Paul Robeson,” Aluko explains. The McCarthyists had already taken care of the old singer – gagged by passport restrictions, discredited to his allies, dogged by the disintegration of his mental health in the face of this ubiquitous ostracism, Robeson had been silenced.

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Aluko receives a standing ovation.

But in Call Mr Robeson, he takes his place as one figure in the pantheon of anti-racist activists. The Freedom Train comes zooming along the track, gleaming in the sunshine for white and black, not stopping at no stations marked colored nor white, just stopping in the fields in the broad daylight. It’s a journey that has been carried part of the way by Toussaint, by Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Rosa Parks, Medgar, Malcolm and Martin and so many more. In this moment, Paul and Essie Robeson became once again a part of this great tradition.

 

The Ol’ Man River, Just Keeps Rolling Along

Robeson’s most (in)famous concert performance was at Peekskill, New York, on the 4th September 1949. The event had been cancelled the previous week, as gangs of white supremacists and anti-Semites had laid siege to the venue, tormenting concert-goers and lynching effigies of Robeson from nearby branches. The following week, Robeson arrived, himself protected by one human chain composed of trade unionists of all races, the crowd perimetered by a second ring. Years ago, Aluko recalls Paul Robeson Jr. was asked, of all his father’s renditions of Ol’ Man River, which was his favourite. It was here, he said, as the police helicopter that had hovered on the horizon approached toward the concert stage, whirring ever nearer as the song kicked into its concluding crescendo. As the drone grew louder, so did Robeson’s voice. The Ol’ Man River kept rolling along, not to be dammed.

This night, as I watched this concert performed in front of me, as the helicopter came closer through some unseen speaker behind me, I sat on the edge of my seat (and I was not the only one.) Robeson watched above him nervously – I knew that this concert was not Robeson’s end, but would a sniper in the helicopter take a shot at him? Maybe there was some gap in my knowledge on his life, maybe he was shot once and recovered. I suddenly didn’t know how this moment played out. The helicopter grew so loud, but so did Aluko’s voice, and like Robeson’s son all those decades ago, I was captivated.

Paul Robeson, it is said, was the first to perform at the Sydney Opera House. Before construction was complete, Robeson stood beside the site and sung for the construction workers as they slowly pieced together this Australian icon. Aluko dreams of one day being able to perform Call Mr Robeson within the Opera House. It would be some event to hear Robeson sing once again on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

A Jury for the 96

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“The interests of justice must be served … The facts must be investigated and re-analysed in a fresh inquest when, however distressing or unpalatable, the truth will be brought to light. In this way, the families of those who died in this disaster will be vindicated and the memory of each victim will be properly respected.

“That is now our task; to investigate the facts, to reveal the truth in a public forum and to reach conclusions on the basis of the evidence presented. It will be a full and thorough investigation.”

– Lord Justice Goldring, 1st April 2014.

 

I was 3 days old when the Hillsborough Disaster occurred. On the 15th April, 1989, 96 Liverpool fans died from injuries sustained during the FA Cup Semi-Final against Nottingham Forest, crushed in the overcrowded central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace.

Nearly 27 years later, families of the victims have still not received a proper answer as to why their relatives died. After a wealth of new evidence was revealed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, a new inquest into the disaster began in 2014, headed by Lord Justice Goldring. After the longest case hearing in British legal history, On Wednesday the jury was finally dispatched to determine the cause of the crush, and whether the deceased were “unlawfully” killed due to gross negligence on the part of South Yorkshire Police.

The ten nine jurors have been given a 31-page questionnaire, containing fourteen questions to be answered. After hearing 276 days of evidence over two years, the jurors’ responses will establish a new official account of Hillsborough, and specifically decide “by what means and in what circumstance did the 96 people come to their deaths.”

 

Write your answer in the space provided

The questionnaire has been made publicly available (I found it on this Guardian page), and the Coroner for South and West Yorkshire has provided specific instructions for the jury to follow. Point 9 leaps out at me.

9. When considering what should have been done on the day of the Disaster or beforehand, please bear in mind the following points.
(a) You should apply the standard of conduct of the time. So, when deciding whether individuals should have acted differently in 1989, you should apply the standards of 1989, not those of today.
(b) You should consider what those involved could and should realistically have done in the circumstances which they were facing.
(c) You should not make judgments which are based on hindsight, but should consider what those involved could reasonably be expected to do at the time.

Legally speaking, what point 9 asks of the jury is necessary – an action that may be considered ‘gross negligence’ today could have been seen as standard practice in 1989, just as said action could have been considered ‘unlawful’ then as of now. Yet difficulties arise from this instruction, due to the nature of this inquiry, its origins, and its purposes.

The primary purpose of the Goldring inquiry is to establish a history of the Hillsborough Disaster, to reconstruct, to the fullest possible extent, an account of the tragedy, in response to an increasing amount of new evidence previously unavailable to old investigations. The official nature of the jury’s task lends their conclusions an authority over the matter of historical truth, yet what becomes history is constructed from impartial evidence, and efforts to fill in the gaps to create a narrative are affected by prejudices. According to the late historian Michel Rolph-Trouillot, what is viewed and preserved as ‘evidence’ is itself selected through the workings of power. In the case of Hillsborough, evidence attained has been largely sought from (and provided at the discretion of) South Yorkshire Police, the emergency services, and Sheffield Wednesday football club.

 

3:06pm, 15th April 1989.

For the jurors, to send their thought processes back to 1989 holds major difficulties when tackling the standards of the day. Let’s unpack this. As established by the Taylor Inquiry of 1990, the crush occurred after congestion outside the Leppings Lane End led to an unmanned “exit” turnstile being opened to allow fans into the ground, leading them into pens already near-full capacity. In desperation fans attempted to climb up to the top tier, or scaled the fence between them and the ground. After six minutes the game was halted. Hundreds were injured, and 96 died as a result of the crush.

Immediately after the Disaster, South Yorkshire Police began to distance themselves from any hint of blame, instead  suggesting that the crush was caused by the behaviour of the Liverpool fans. Police Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who had given the order to open the turnstile against previous precedent for matches at Hillsborough, initially claimed that the fans had forced the gate open. South Yorkshire Police subsequently emphasised observations of fans drinking, and suggested that many had showed up late and without tickets, planning to rush the gates to gain access.

 

“The Truth”

The idea of Liverpool fans as culpable chimed with the contemporary popular imagination, fed by a decade of images of violence in football, especially those of the Heysel disaster of 1985. During the European Cup final in Brussels, a group of Liverpool fans rushed the adjoining “neutral” section of the ground, comprised mostly of Juventus fans, and the subsequent flight of fans from the area put too much pressure upon a wall in the rickety old ground, causing a collapse that killed 39 fans, mostly from Italy. The following day UEFA observer Gunter Schneider declared that “only the English fans were responsible,” and Margaret Thatcher agreed, requesting that English clubs be barred from subsequent European competition. Just five days after the match, the ban was put in place. Subsequent analysis of Heysel suggested that along with the aggressors (of which fourteen would be found guilty of manslaughter), police and organisers were also culpable, but the prevailing attitude in 1989 was that Liverpool fans were dangerous. This was only exacerbated by class and regional prejudice against working-class Liverpudlians – Middle England has long held the stereotype of the Scousers as vandals, thieves and arsonists. To many in 1989, a person from Liverpool was seen as an inherent criminal.

It was no surprise, that the English press, long-time peddlers of such filth and nonsense, exacerbated the narrative that found the fault in the victims of Hillsborough. Underneath The Sun’s famous headline, “The Truth,” lay  lurid, false claims that Liverpool fans, “drunken,” had pickpocketed the dead, and urinated on the police. Scousers no longer buy The Sun, but other publications such as the Sunday Times also insinuated blame, highlighting the popularity of the opinion. It went all the way to the top – UEFA president Jacques Georges immediately blamed hooliganism for Hillsborough, characterising Liverpool fans as “beasts,” before later retracting the claim.

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“The Truth.” Source – Wikipedia

The Lies

Such ideas have remained strong from 1989 to the present-day. The Hillsborough Independent Panel of 2012 noted the endurance of the narrative of fan aggravation as cause. Just last month in their Europa League match at Anfield, a few Manchester United fans taunted their opposition with a chant saying The Sun were right, you’re murderers. I’ve spoken to too many people who dehumanise the victims of Hillsborough as “typical violent scousers,” rather than attempting to find any sympathy with those who died simply for attending a football match.

The point is that to “apply the standards of 1989” is a historical, as well as a legal, exercise. In 1989, the idea that Liverpool fans were dangerous was commonplace and it was capitalised upon by South Yorkshire Police. Yet fans, relatives of the victims and victim solidarity groups have always rejected this widely-held and powerfully-backed notion. The Taylor Report, examining the available evidence, placed the primary cause of the Disaster on a breakdown of police practice as opposed to fan action, yet saw these failings as existing in poor administration rather than in negligence. The official verdict was, and remained, “accidental death.”

Yet as more evidence surfaced, in no small part thanks to the efforts of tireless Hillsborough justice campaigners, many of the claims made by Duckenfield and South Yorkshire Police have unravelled. The notion that the crush was caused by ticketless fans was placed in doubt by the Taylor Report which highlighted that the stand as a whole was still under-capacity at 15:06. Duckenfield’s claim that fans broke through the Exit gate was shown to be false, and as further observations were collected (and heard), levels of drinking by the standards of the day were generally seen to be much lower than would be expected.

Over the past ten years momentum has slowly built up as those who campaign for Justice for the 96 have continued undeterred, and found increasingly sympathetic voices in positions of power. The Hillsborough Family Support Group (led by Trevor Hicks, father of two of the victims) had pressed for the release of documents previously disclosed, arguing that their release could greatly change the public memory of the Disaster. The Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed in 2009 to investigate this claim, and three years later released its findings along with 450 000 pages of documents relating to the crisis. It concluded that Liverpool fans held no responsibility for the tragedy, but its findings were damning for South Yorkshire Police.

It found that 164 witness statements had been altered, of which 116 had been changed to remove negative comments regarding police behaviour. It found that police had conducted an active search for information to smear the victims, and had run blood alcohol tests on the bodies (38 of the 96 were children). It found that the Sun’s “The Truth” article had been sourced from false comments by the Conservative MP of Sheffield Hallam, Irvine Patnick. Its most chilling conclusion was that up to 41 of the deceased still had sufficient heart and lung function at the time the emergency services reached them, and perhaps might have been saved were it not for failings in an emergency response previously exonerated by the Taylor Report. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has since uncovered a further 55 altered statements. This evidence caused such a stir that it led David Cameron to apologise to the victims on behalf of the government, and in the resulting fallout it was decided a new official inquiry should take place.

 

The Historical Sorcery of a Legal Judgment

Therefore when our jury is instructed to ignore hindsight in its verdict, it is required to remove from its considerations two decades of historical sorcery conducted by South Yorkshire Police and those in the media and parliament who sought to protect them. This suggestion of a cover-up, beginning on the afternoon of the 15th April 1989, is at the very least evidence that Duckenfield and South Yorkshire Police were aware that their failings that day were far greater than a system failure.

Once again, I wish to express sympathy with the legal thinking of Point 9, yet the primary aim of this inquiry is to establish an authoritative historical account, inspired by the quashing of the original “accidental death” verdict and the subsequent acceptance of later findings as admissible evidence following the HIP investigation. An inquiry that refuses prior acknowledgement of the two decades of gagging histories of Hillsborough that dissent from the SYP narrative must continually compete with ideas of fan culpability. Subsequent to the findings of HIP and the IPCC, Our questionnaire is designed to assess responsibility in various groups including and beyond SYP, including the emergency services and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.

Question 7, however, asks the jury to consider whether there was “any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles,” and recommends that the jury consider “whether or not some supporters at the Leppings Lane turnstiles behaved in a way which was unusually forceful or resistant to police control.” To answer said question without hindsight, in light of what has become apparent since, is not only counterproductive to an inquiry that was launched specifically in response to ‘new’ evidence previously withheld, but also an incredibly difficult task given the events of the last few years.

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Leppings Lane turnstiles. Source – Liverpool Echo

 

Duties of Care

Question 6 is the most important question to be answered.

“Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the Disaster were unlawfully killed?”

It comes with two pages of guidelines, importantly explaining that a juror “must be sure that Chief Superintendent Duckenfield owed a duty of care to the 96 people who died in the Disaster.” This too is a question difficult to answer using the “standards” of 1989. The 1990 Taylor Report, for example, wrote that “hooliganism at and associated with football matches has strongly influenced the strategy of the police.” The report deems this strategy “understandable and indeed commendable,” but notes the subsequent “imbalance” in police duties between “the need to quell a minority of troublemakers and the need to secure the safety and comfort of the majority.”Therefore, to ask whether Duckenfield owed a duty of care to those who died in the first place is to ask a complicated question.

If he did, by the standards of 1989, hold a duty of care to the Liverpool fans then the idea that killing could be described as unlawful due to gross negligence immediately gains strength. However, if one doubts that Duckenfield did not owe a duty of care, a possible scenario when judging the “lawfulness” of their actions, a juror thus opens the sinister historical question as to what the true purpose of the presence of South Yorkshire Police was that day.

Through this logic one might conclude that, whatever the answers to the other questions, the Goldring inquiry consequently endorses the notion that because of the dominant (though never universally-held) opinion that Liverpudlians were criminals and hooligans, the true purpose of South Yorkshire Police was to guard the rest of the world from Liverpool fans. This position would, historically speaking, implicitly legitimise institutional violence based solely on the modal attitudes of a period. Even if the inquiry finds the SYP and Duckenfield at fault for the Disaster, to answer question six in the negative would legally exonerate them. The question of “duty of care” is loaded with historical and legal meaning. 

 

Historical justice needs legal justice

Gramsci wrote that “truth is always revolutionary.” In history, truth is always multiple and contestable due to the partial and subjective nature of the archives, and what is known as history is so often affected by the workings of political and social power. The revolutionary truth of Hillsborough can be attained by shattering the decades of myths and manipulations that have distracted attention away from failings in the response and accentuated the actions of the victims. That requires the use of “hindsight.”

Can this inquest provide that truth? It is certainly possible, especially in the investigation of individual times and circumstances of death that can highlight potential failings in the emergency response, and in the reconsideration of evidence previously redacted from previous inquiries. Much depends on the ten nine jurors and their interpretation of the questionnaire guidelines and of Point 9, and in what manner the fourteen questions are answered.

However, the legal, moral and historical questions posed by the Hillsborough Disaster are so intertwined that if the actions of the South Yorkshire Police are not deemed unlawful it will be difficult to demolish the two-decades of historical manipulation to the benefit of the SYP, yet without the latter, legal justice for the 96 may prove difficult. It may prove beyond the scope of the jury’s decision to achieve this lofty task, but its conclusions will carry a weighty authority, and in this moment there is a chance that the Goldring Inquiry could yet bring vindication for the victims of Hillsborough and those who survive them.

They’ve been waiting for twenty-seven years.

 

 

The Strange Death of King Coal

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The first six years of my life were in South Wales. I am from Abergavenny – it’s down in the Vale of Usk, but it’s more of a tearoom and market castle town than a “Valley” valley, most famous for its incarceration of Rudolph Hess, and a brief time in the 14th Century when Abergavenny declared itself independent from the rest of you lot.  I’m not from a mining town.

But Abergavenny lies on the very edge of the South Wales Coalfield, that stretches 90 miles west of the town, through Blaenavon, Merthyr, the Rhondda and Neath right out to Pembrokeshire. So in those few years I learned about the mines, as you do in that part of the world.

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South Wales Coalfield. Source: Flikr|thereggy

I remember the slag heaps on the hill side and the day trips to the Rhondda Heritage Park.  I also recall heading over the top of the Blorenge, the mountain that looked over my garden, to Big Pit in Blaenavon, the mine-turned-museum. The tour underground was run back then by ex-Miners, a few of whom managed to stay in the industry as tour guides, and I think a few are still there. I never did that part of the tour. I had a chance, when I was young, but I was scared of a cave-in, probably because I’d just been taught about Victorian kids (younger than me) dying in mines.

It’s silly really, but that’s how my generation, those of us who aren’t from a mining family or old colliery town, were told about the mines. They were something past relics of the days when kids and pit-ponies and men with rickets were sent away from the daylight to work the pits. It’s what kept them alive (that, and the canaries). That’s not what mining is anymore. Coal is still being hauled out of the ground. Mechanised and safer than ever before, but still tough, until the end of today’s shift it’s still the lifeblood of those who work the last face at Kellingley Colliery.

Nowadays it’s all about the environmental factors too. Coal kills the planet, and clean coal isn’t a sufficient alternative. Coal is choking us, so apparently we’re moving onto gas until that chokes us too. They’re closing the coal-fired power stations next, and everybody important is happy about this. It makes us ever-so-slightly greener as a country. Shall we build another runway at Heathrow?

Those in charge don’t really care about the green stuff. The government has made that pretty damn clear. But in any case, British coal isn’t going to be part of this country’s future. As life beats past us, it brings with it in the backwash a whole host of nostalgic feeling; you may have noticed some of it in my first few paragraphs. People love a bit of nostalgia, and it takes on many forms. There’s the nationalistic stuff, and in the week where Benedict Anderson passed, you can find tales of how coal built a nation, or built an empire – which in Brit-nostalgia, is rose-tinted, ignoring its brutal past and economic endurance (just think about where the coal is coming from now).

“The country used to be called Great Britain, and coal is part of what put great into that name” said Chris Kitchen, General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, last week. Britain is an imagined community built of coal and steam, and these images are frequently wrapped up in ideas of “Better Days.” This blog isn’t about that. Not today, at least. Kellingley’s closure isn’t about the death of John Bull or any of that Victoriaphilian nonsense.

There’s the other nostalgia. The moving stuff, the part that makes the Financial Times squirm  because other people are feeling emotions that they cannot comprehend. The centuries of stories of how entire communities went underground, mined the heart out of the place, looking after the town, their families, and each other. Because they were miners, and that’s just what they did. Many hands lighten the load, as the Haitians say. However outdated coal may be as an idea, Kellingley marks the end of a way of life, a popular culture complete with its own folklore, music, humour and so many histories. It is always sad when a way of life dies out, and deep mining dies today, not with a strike, but a whimper.

This isn’t Brassed Off, or Pride. The end doesn’t happen with a defiant march through the streets, with heads held high.

THAT’S NOT ENOUGH.

The resilience of downtrodden communities can be an inspiring thing to watch from the outside, and the capacity for human renewal in such places is symbolic of the most impressive qualities of our society. But all the obituaries of two centuries of life in the coalfields can be a distraction from the final act of the systematic destruction of mining life in this country. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

The death of deep mining threatens the existence of the NUM, once the most powerful, government-felling union in the land. Thatcher mortally wounded the miners and the NUM during the strike of 1983-1984. Incarcerating without cause, the police beat the picketers, they beat their partners and their children too. The press burned them in daily written effigies. Over the latter half of the 20th Century, mines were increasingly underfunded and the jobs ebbed away. Successive governments did not care about the future of such places. In the 1990s, the Major government set up a few generous pension schemes as it closed dozens of mines, but work never returned, and nor was it encouraged. Mining towns were given an expiry date, nothing more.

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March in Glasgow in support of the Miner’s Strike, 1983. Source: BBC News

A few places found an economy in mining heritage. A couple of ex-Miners could run the tours down Big Pit, now part of the Museum of Wales, but really it’s plugging the dam with a fingernail. Blaenavon has tried a few things to stay afloat, even attempting to mimic Hay-on-Wye as another Welsh “book town,” but to no avail. They haven’t given up yet.

Modern, mechanised mines like Kellingley, first sunk in 1960, were able to carry on for longer. Extracting over 2 million tonnes of coal a year, Kellingley is full of cutting-edge tech. The miners drop down the shaft, at over 40mph, to a depth of 800 metres below the surface, before boarding a train for a five mile ride to the coalface, which is finally reached in one final commute aboard a conveyor belt (that itself can be another two miles long).

At temperatures of nearly 40˚C, the coal is extracted from the face using the Shearer, which resembles a gigantic pizza-cutter. While that works its magic, the seam, itself over 300m long, is held open by a series of mechanised roof supports that press upwards to keep the face clear. As the Shearer surges onwards, the roof behind the supports is allowed to collapse. Each supporting post in the passages holds at least three sensors to forewarn of danger. (More info here at UK Coal website)

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A modern mine. Source: UK Coal

These days, miners wear more than just a hard-hat, but it’s still a tough, risky business down in the pit. Collapses still happen. Miners carry a device called a “self-rescuer” that provides emergency air in case of fire. Three miners, Don Cook, Ian Cameron and Gerry Gibson have died at Kellingley in the last decade. Shifts at “The Big K” are 12 hours long, of which 3 is spent just getting to-and-from the coalface.

Romanticised accounts on these aspects of mining alone do not really exist; the sentiment of the closing of the pits is attached to the death of a way of life so important to many people alive today. Those who mourn the end of mining do not want people risking their lives in cave-ins and explosions. We do wish for communities to not be left behind in the past as evaporating towns where kids with prospects throw a bag on their backs and never return, and everybody else ends up on the dole or in a Sports Direct depot as in Shirebrook.

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Modern miner. Souce: UK Coal

It’s at that point where we shake off the intoxicating nostalgia of the pit town. The end of deep coal is an end of security. As the NUM declines to almost nothing, and as the trade union movement itself comes under increasing threat, the ex-miners in these towns find their friends are also ebbing away. The canteen in Kellingley now has a makeshift career service – there are jobs advertised for a nearby Wind Farm factory in Hull. 14 of them (at its peak, Kellingley employed 2000). There are plans to build a Waste-to-Energy facility on the site, but that comes with just 38 full-time positions.

The NUM is angry about all of this; Dave Kitchen explains that the skills of deep-mining are honed and unique, and the miners have also been damaged from years in the pit. In any case, the planned re-training and re-employment schemes offered are little more than lip-service.

“Now we have miners at various stages of that journey entering the job market. Employers will be interviewing men who know how to work hard but who aren’t as healthy as they should be because their back’s not right or they have a weak chest.

We haven’t been in this situation before because previously when a pit has closed there’s always been the option of transferring. The Kellingley miners have specialised skills but nowhere to take them because theirs is the last pit.”

Many who came to Kellingley, like Welshman Carwyn Donovan, followed the coal to Yorkshire after their old mines bit the bullet. The pension schemes provided by a £10m grant to UK Coal from the Government are a shadow of those given out in the ‘90s. One miner, laid off in August, was only told at the start of his last shift that at the end of the day, he would no longer have a job. Even the UK Coal website claims to this day that its mines closed this year would be open until 2019.

This is a disinterested assassination of a town and the final stage of a thirty-year dismantling of the lives of coal miners. This isn’t about the Paris Talks or climate change or worker safety or merely the passing of time. Britain hasn’t abandoned coal yet, just its miners. Coal from abroad comes in at £13-a-ton less than from below our feet. The buyers don’t care about the welfare of those who brought that coal to the surface either.

The price is all that matters, and the overheads of a modern mine are high. It needs to be preparing the next face as the current one is worked to maintain profit. Starved of investment, UK Coal pulled the rug quickly from Kellingley and Thoresby (in Nottinghamshire) this year to cut losses. It’s cheaper for the buyers to buy no-questions-asked coal whilst the argument is spun that deep mining was an old nag who had to be put out of its misery.

The Kellingley miners are going to march tomorrow through Knottingley, the nearest village. Organised by two local women, the march will begin “one last pit party” for the town. But then the town will go into Christmas, short of 450 jobs and full of uncertainty. “We’re all off on gap years, aren’t we?” said one miner, wryly.

Pam Ross of the GMB Union, finds a flaw in the nostalgia.

We will lose skills, traditions and culture associated with coal mining, and obviously suffer the social deprivation from communities losing their source of employment. It’s ironic that there are so many coal mining museums in the UK – obviously the general public has a lot of empathy for miners and mining, pity the UK Government did not share that empathy.”

Ross would like to have seen mining continue until at least 2025. Maybe that wasn’t possible. But through better pension schemes, training and local investment the Government could have at least ensured a better future for ex-mining towns, so that mining need not be remembered as the better past.

The last tonne of coal pulled out of Kellingley is going to go on display at the National Coal Mining Museum next year. Like in the Rhondda and Big Pit, heritage is all we have left of the mining life. Perhaps in remembering the struggle and spirit of the mining past Knottingley, Blaenavon and other ex-mining towns can continue to endure the hard times and hope for a future that is more than a story of permanent decline. That is the culture of mining that doesn’t have to die.

Deep coal mining in Britain is over.

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Dave King, Kellingley miner (left) and Keith Poulson of the NUM, at the Kellingley Miners Memorial. Source: Daily Mirror

PS I have read somewhere that the Memorial is being moved the National Mining Museum in Wakefield and Kellingley Miners are raising money toward this aim. If anyone has more info on this/how to give please let me know.

Source of header image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror

1983 and its Misuses: Jeremy Corbyn and the “Lessons of History”

Ed stone

PART I: TRAUMA DENIAL

One of the most common proverbs of pop history is Santayana’s Warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

History has been well-remembered in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on the Labour Leadership ballot, and even more so since he has become favourite for the job. Andrew Rawnsley’s words are the most colourful, telling of “a nightmarish revival of demons” in the shape of a bearded man from Shropshire. Among others, the ex-SDP candidate Polly Toynbee recalls the early 1980s and the terrible days of Militant entryism in her column, and just today Kevin Meagher writes that a Corbyn victory is the manifestation of lessons of the past “defiantly unlearnt.”

These voices of scepticism specifically point to the early-1980s. The “Lesson of History” employed is designed to take older Labour minds back to their lowest point, when the party was split in two by the Gang of Four who formed the SDP in response to the growing influence of hard-left activists, dividing the anti-Thatcher vote. In the 1983 General Election, Michael Foot’s Labour Party received just 28% of votes cast. Some at the time saw it as the final nail in the coffin for the party, although its electoral performance would recover.

“Trauma denial” was responsible then, says Martin Kettle, and such post-traumatic stress is also responsible for #Jezmania. It is the job of cool-handed, hard-minded Labourites, he argues, to ensure the party doesn’t fall into its comfort zone and select another socialist. It’s a psychological assessment, incidentally, taken straight out of Liz Kendall’s campaign.

In actuality this is the exact mental state these agents of history wish to induce into the minds of left-leaning types who lived through 1983 and Thatcher’s victory, a success that gave her the confidence to launch her assault on trade unionism and local government power. Politics in Britain is a ruthless beast, and to open these old wounds that have never quite healed is to strike at the heart of the political trauma of the left, to hypnotise Labourists into thinking that it was placing their principles over pragmatism (as much as anything Thatcher did) that were to blame for the brutal repression of the miners, the centralisation of the Thatcherist state, privatisation, and a foreign policy that propped up Pinochet and Apartheid.

And what of those of us, myself included, who were not alive or old enough to remember this disaster? We are instructed to respect our elders, and defer to their opinion, for they had witnessed 1983 in the flesh, and learned the hard way that socialism can only ever be an expression of youth. “I’ve been accused of being patronising by some of the new idealistic members,” writes Luke Akleshurst, “sorry but it is difficult not to be when confronted by naivety [and] sheer made-up cloud cuckoo land economics and political analysis that i grew out of at about the same stage in 1983, when aged 11.”

Or, I was wiser as a kid than you are as young adults, so listen to my words in lieu of picking up a history book. The story of 1983 is far more complicated than its portrayal in 2015 opinion columns.

What these figures are evoking is History with a capital ‘H’. A loaded tautology, the idea that as something failed before it will only fail again. It’s the very “definition of madness” to try otherwise, we are told. The past is a clear warning against the future. To speak of 1983 is enough in such arguments, further words need not be necessary. Steven Fielding can therefore rename Jeremy as “Catastrophe Corbyn” with 1983 as supporting evidence.

Likewise, take Erdington MP Jack Dromey’s endorsement of Yvette Cooper (which incidentally contains very little about Cooper herself). Dromey writes extensively of Foot and his failures, before applying his conclusions directly onto Corbyn’s future.. In such analyses Corbyn becomes Michael Foot simply because he is left-wing, and alongside his manifesto (five years prior to being written) becomes the second “longest suicide note in history.” Is this accurate?

PART II: MICHAEL FOOT, THE FICTIONAL LEFTIST

Source: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/pictures/covers/full/543_big.jpg

Private Eye Cover, 8th October 1982, Tony Benn and Michael Foot. Source: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/pictures/covers/full/543_big.jpg

Let’s step into our time machine and head back to 1983. Gerald Kaufmann is perhaps most famous for that phrase, “the longest suicide note in history”, his scathing indictment of Michael Foot’s manifesto, and the Manchester Gorton MP remembers it as a time when “poor, innocent Foot” had been misled by communist infiltrators (known as the Militant Tendency) who worked at the mercy of the KGB (the spy he mentions, Viktor Kubeikin, according to a google search only appears on the entire internet within articles penned by Kaufmann). Kaufmann’s words are emblematic of the Lesson of 1983, where Foot plays the gullible, romantic leftist who was dealing with forces he could not understand.

Others remember it differently, and place serious doubt over the validity of Foot’s leftism. Academic Jeremy Gilbert sees Foot as an “intelligent but un-charismatic” leftist, but others remembered Foot as closer to his deputy Denis Healey and the reformists of the right, and was regarded by many of the left at the time, Labour or otherwise, with healthy suspicion, tied to the proto-austerity of Callaghan’s government as much as a leftist agenda. Toynbee remembered a buzz of excitement around Foot from the converted (#Footmania, if you will), but there was certainly no premature coronation; a quick look back at opinion polls shows that Foot’s did not record support over 40% from 1981, and was far behind Thatcher for a year prior to the vote.

But did Michael Foot even matter? The National Executive Committee and the Constituency parties, under the figurehead of Tony Benn, held great sway over Labour policy in the early-1980s, and had seen a shift leftwards in the decade previous as activists born in the struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s graduated to higher office. Their influence was palpable in manufacturing a left-wing platform for 1983 that has certainly never been seen in the party since. But, as Ralph Miliband argued at the time, its commitments to unilateral disarmament and re-nationalisation of industry were not far-removed from previous, victorious Labour manifestos of the 1970s. So what went so dreadfully wrong?

Polling data, 1979, 1983. Source: Anthony Wells, UK Polling Report

Really Useful Graph of Polling Data, 1979, 1983. Source: Anthony Wells, UK Polling Report

Had times changed? Had Thatcherism more in tune to the mood of the electorate? Perhaps, but Thatcher was deeply unpopular until the advent of war in the Falklands. The narrative of the “Falklands Factor” is well-known, but its perceived impact has recently come into question. In any case, Thatcher’s vote share fell from 1979. The SDP were an important factor, born of the “civil war” within the party, and gained millions of votes, although the idea that those votes would have otherwise “belonged” to Labour is fraught with inaccuracy. But Miliband still located the responsibility for Labour’s loss at its own doorstep. It was not the leftist platform itself, he argued, but that Labour presented a left-wing manifesto to be argued at the highest level by people like Foot and Healey who did not believe in its words. How could those unconvinced by their own arguments possibly defend them in the face of a full-blown assault by the Thatcherist media?

Jeremy Corbyn is a bona fide left-winger, there can be no doubt about that, he is a republican, a vice-chair of CND, and a weekly contributor to the Morning Star, Britain’s last remaining Marxist paper. But his platform is hardly radical when compared with ghosts of manifestos past; a Keynesian economic policy, re-nationalisation of the railways, devolution to northern England, and scrapping of Trident. These are policies with significant support that are held already in some form by the SNP and Greens. Foot in 1983 was, perhaps, in an opposite situation, as a moderate in charge of a left-wing manifesto. There is certainly enough doubt in the similarity of Corbynism with Michael Foot and the “longest suicide note in history” as to argue that there is no historical use in such association.

PART III: FROM SUICIDE NOTES TO TOMBSTONES

That is not to say that to compare Labour in 1983 and 2015 is simply an exercise in futility, there are useful comparisons to be made, but they have little to do with Jeremy Corbyn. Consider these words from Ralph Miliband.

The election results have conferred a new legitimacy upon an exceptionally reactionary Conservative government; and they have also served to demoralise further a movement that was already in bad shape well before the election. It may be said – and indeed it should be said – that the Conservative Government only obtained 30.8 per cent of the total vote and 42.2 per cent of those who voted; and that its vote was less than in 1979. But the system is designed to put the main emphasis on the number of seats won rather than on votes cast; and the fact that the Government obtained a majority of 144 seats in the House of Commons makes it possible for it to claim, however spuriously, that it has a ‘mandate’ for the policies it chooses to put forward.

Ring any bells? Fast-forward to 2015, and we have a government who obtained 24.4% of electorate support and 36.9% of those who voted, and with a majority of 12 has immediately set upon massive cuts to welfare (and even attempted to re-introduce fox hunting) with its new-found mandate. Foot and his manifesto combined to present a confusing, contradictory face of the Labour party, in 2015, there was Ed Miliband, who muddled his way somewhere between tackling inequality and mimicking Tory policy on immigration and the economy in a bid to seem electable. Labour was nearly buried by this confusion; the metaphor of “the longest suicide note in history” was mimicked by Ed Miliband’s tombstone of triple-locked pledges; promises so wrapped within meaningless platitudes as to promise nothing but a manifesto worth less than zero.

 

PART IV: LEADERS OF THE OPPOSITION

Poll Tax Demonstrations. Source: BBC News UK

Poll Tax Demonstrations, 1989. Source: BBC News UK

It was the damage following 1983 that many today warn may be repeated under Corbyn. Dromey gives an impassioned recollection of the decade, and how Thatcher’s war against trade unionism was legitimated by Labour’s defeat. That’s fair, but it discounts the frequent historical examples wherein opposition (or lack of it) played an important role; Kinnock’s diluted labourism achieved nothing but two further electoral defeats, and as Thatcher met stern opposition from striking miners and city councils, the “leader of the opposition” was nowhere to be found. While Kinnock sat on the fence, solidarity for the miners instead came from small activist organisations (such as the now-famous Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). The Poll Tax demonstrations that would contribute to Thatcher’s downfall were forged in Militant. Kinnock, a weather-vane leader, was absent again until the tide was clearly turning.

Opposition can make a significant impact, just ask Ed Miliband, whose stance against David Cameron on Syria for a time changed government (and international) policy on the matter. It is another myth of history to suggest that little can be achieved outside of government; but when electability is all that matters to the Corbyn critics, no other aspect of political history is even considered. Were Labour to select another Kinnock, the current government may rule without proper and consistent opposition from the second-largest party in Parliament (as the SNP are unlikely to always intervene on English and Welsh legislation).

I cannot predict the future; it would be foolish and reductive to say with any certainty that “effective opposition” to the Conservative government would manifest itself simply through a Corbyn leadership. Gilbert is sceptical. He feels that the lack of an accompanying left popular movement will render this impossible; it was this, for Gilbert, that was the key failing of 1983 and he feels that, based on past experience, it could take another 10 years (or two Conservative governments) to build one.

PART V: FIRST LESSON, TRIPLE HISTORY

“Angelus Novus” by Klee, or Benjamin’s Angel of History

Whether it’s 1945, 1983, or 1997, the Labour leadership election is constantly being dragged into the past, and as in so many British political issues, there is perhaps too much importance being attached to the lessons of history. The intentional evocation of 1983 by the Labour right is clear, but British society as a whole can be too obsessed with applying historical rhetoric to present-day arguments. It is the duty of the historian to call out distortions of the past such as this, but to keep this discussion rooted in 1983 is to mimic Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, hurtling backwards through the present with our eyes firmly rooted upon the debris of the past.

It needs to be written, boldly and simplistically (but not set in stone), that 2015 IS NOT 1983. Things move quicker now. The “Yes” campaign, Syriza and Podemos all show that mass movements do not need 10 years to grow, they just need a catalyst. Never mind the obvious statements that there is no Soviet Union in 1983, the Militant Tendency no longer exists, as well as the fact that left-issues considered “loony” 32 years ago such as LGBTQ rights and feminism are now increasingly part of the political mainstream. It is possible, through Corbyn or through other channels, for the English and Welsh left to organise on a national scale and nobody can say for certain whether this will “succeed” or “fail” based on the memories of Michael Foot and the election of 1983.

But memories of an altogether different time continue to dominate discussion over Corbyn. Just yesterday, Blairite John McTernan called for Tom Watson to rescue Labour “from itself”, writing that “if Jeremy Corbyn is Michael Foot, Tom Watson is Neil Kinnock. There is no alternative.” The real lesson of 1983 is that those who obsess over the past are condemned to repeat it, and those who misuse the past intend to repeat it.

Disclaimer: Although it is no secret that I am a massive leftie, this post is in no way affiliated to Labour Party, Corbyn, Michael Foot, or anyone except myself, and I write it as a historian.