Reflections on the BBC Radio 2 Radio Ballad on the Miners’ Strike

Two powerful experiences, both with a common source; it was only a radio programme after all. The first arose from an email to Charles Parker Trust Friends and contacts. The second was the effect of the subject of that email.

At the request of the Trustees, as Secretary I emailed those people we have addresses for in order to advise them of the forthcoming Radio Ballad on the Miners’ Strike which was to be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on 2nd March 2010, marking twenty five years since the end of the dispute.

It was a reaction we’d not really contemplated. It was only a note sent to a group of people. It was only a radio programme. There were so many comments and queries. Too many, I replied, again in a circular, saying we just could not do justice to all them all.

Some days have passed and we have heard the Radio Ballad either as a broadcast or on the BBC “Listen Again” facility. Pam Bishop, who runs the Trust website, thought we should now try to pick up some of the points we were unable to address in the two emails. It can’t be done. Not by me. I can only reflect.

Therefore, this is not a review of the radio programme, nor is it a review of the comments we received. It is though a reflection upon both. And the responses, before and after the programme show that amongst a certain section of society, at least, there are still strong emotions, deep pain and anger waiting for release. Only a couple of individuals who have commented, Dave Douglass and Jack Warshaw, are quoted directly here and that is because some of what they say is already accessible on the Trust website or on one to which Dave contributes. We’ll mention other comments too but without attribution.

“Here’s to the finest of the union
A year on strike they stood up proud and tall
Here’s to those who fought and died
Men and women side by side
And the little ones who cried through it all”

This is Jack Warshaw’s song in 1985 – click here for full version.

And now Dave Douglass on the new Radio Ballad, “……overall very powerful, very moving and very good.” But these comments carry a view of how the other side is represented in the programme;
“…of course I was shocked rigid by the sympathetic inclusion of scabs, and even scabs songs.”

In the midst of the crucifixion in the first part of the programme, we have the perpetrators later. Scabs.

Here’s Dave Douglass again from his website article in 2004 and quoting Jack London;
“ Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Judas Iscariot sold his saviour for 30 pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British army. The modern strikebreaker sells his birthright, his country, his wife, his children and his fellow men for an unfulfilled promise from his employer, trust or corporation. Esau was a traitor to himself, Judas Iscariot was a traitor to his god, Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country.
A strikebreaker is a traitor to himself, a traitor to his god, a traitor to his country, a traitor to his family, and a traitor to his class. There is nothing lower than a scab.”

For a fuller account see the Weekly Worker article

In the programme then, the heroism and the damned; what happened though to all that body of experience? Not just Jack’s song, not just Dave’s warnings but the songs of Ewan MacColl and others written for the Strike, what about the folk-lore? And what about all those memories and recordings made at the time and in the times that have passed? That was what many of the people who replied to our email wanted to know. And we have no answer. We have reflections.

And one of those reflections is that we have a diverse folk memory, some recorded some not. And now, thanks to Vince Hunt and his team we have more. Reflections distorted by ripples of pain (that will always be waves for some), faulty memory, inadequate resource to capture all that should be retained. Ripples in the reflection… of police and spies and scabs and a government content to turn the people upon the people.

The prevailing cry in 2010 was, “Why didn’t they speak to me? I could have helped.” Perhaps the Radio Ballad on 2010 was like the Big Hewer of 1961, not overwhelmed by the material, the actuality, but by the enormity of the subject.

Here’s Charles Parker from the 1967 cover notes to the Argo LP;
“It’s a paradox, for no one in his senses could wish men to go on indefinitely burrowing in the earth for coal.”

But he reinforces the paradox he paints…….
“…indeed we obliterate the past at our peril; without it we cannot grasp the defiant humanism of The Big Hewer, and this is the vital legacy of the coal miner, which no amount of rationalisation must be allowed to jeopardise.”

So we shall keep writing our songs, we shall continue to record and we shall make programmes reflecting, yes reflecting, our own times in the deep pool of the folk memory. Charles was right about that paradox.

Ian M Parr, March 2010

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