may day

it’s unfashionable – even over here on the left – to celebrate may day as the day of the working people. nobody flies red flags, nobody even complains they aren’t allowed to celebrate it like st george’s day. it is rarely mentioned at all.

but on may day i like to think about where i came from; about my great grandfather Thomas Milburn, a cumbrian lead miner until the work dried up and he came east to the durham coalfield and became a durham pitman; about my grandad, who followed his father into the pit and never became a deputy despite passing his exams, because Thomas was the lodge chairman – no masonic lodge, this, but a trade union and the chairman was its shop steward – and lodge could never be management. coal cutters both; ‘hewers’ as they were both precisely described on my grandfather’s wedding certificate – as was his new father in law; men who worked for hours at a time with a pick, cutting the coal by hand as it was done until not so long ago. and my grandad worked the thin seam – 18 inches at its narrowest – he told me about it without drama, without making any of the obvious points about how easy i had it – an actor rehearsing a play about what he had lived – he did mention it was a wet seam, which meant you lay in the water to cut the coal. he survived a roof fall to be invalided out of the pit relatively unscathed – though he showed me how he couldn’t raise his arm above the horizontal; fortunately he wasn’t a great drinker.

he bought a shop from one of his wife’s family – if you see the picture of it, shop is much too grand a title – a cross between a phone box and an outside toilet – and sold cigarettes at the pithead as the men came out from shift – presumably just in case they weren’t dying fast enough from silicosis or pneumoconiosis; many of them his old pit marrers. in time he graduated to a real corner shop which he kept until a little before his death. i went past it the other day and there was a mercedes parked outside.

two great ironies – a great grandad who got on his bike and looked for work (or would have if he could afford a bloody bike) and a grandad who ran a corner shop like alderman roberts (never became an alderman – too much against the grain for that; still too much a lodge man). but neither of them ever would or did believe those two great tory lies, of tebbit and thatcher that combine in the myth that anyone can make it if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps. they lived and died socialists; men who were strong enough to fight for their rights and the rights of those around them, because they realised that humans are too big to be bought and sold and humanity too precious to be commodified. or more likely because they wanted their family to be able to eat. and because of their efforts, my mother became the first in her family to continue her education after school; i in turn ended up with an education deemed (rightly) to be among the most privileged. not because capitalism allows everyone a fair chance if they work hard – but because they organised and combined with others like them to claim their rights as human beings.

when people decide that my education and new place firmly among the middle classes make my socialism of the champagne variety (my best friends will laugh at that – they know i would always hold my hand up as a vintage port socialist), it has as much logic as the accusations leveled against some feminists of being ‘academic’. the implication is somehow that both socialists and feminists should eschew education, which might indeed find favour with those who wish both women and the working classes would know their place and keep to it. as the starving artist loses his magic when he graduates from his garret, so the feminist and the socialist should not avail themselves of education (or presumably a good meal).

the subject of feminism is pertinent because, while socialism may not always foster the feminist cause, i am certain that socialism, is a natural partner of feminism. and equally certain that conservatism, built on the commodification of the individual, has no place for feminism.

blair and new labour have been here for ten years and things are bad – but ten years earlier it was a different prime minister, a different party and the same bloody stupid war with even less excuse; a couple of years before that, she was fighting her war on working people in this country. to reclaim a popular phrase from those days: ‘if an etonian in a loud waistcoat is the answer, it must have been a bloody stupid question’.

i don’t imagine Thomas Milburn would have thought much of either of them, but he knew where he came from. i, in my turn, am pretty sure where i have come from – i live in a world a million miles from theirs, but built on their strength and courage, bought by their blood and the blood of those like them. i owe them. and i won’t forget it.


13 responses to “may day

  1. Blood is a hell of a thing to build things on. You shed it, you pump it with your heart, it nourishes every cell to the tips of fingers and eyelids. It goes blue, it carries air, it is Iron, it controls a process of rust till the tissues are done with it and it goes back for a fresh breath of air. To have such a society, who’s lifes blood are steeped in humanity, building humane tissues of governmental organs that work together with other organs for an overall organism with a purpose to covet ones own blood and spill only that which cannot be held, maybe it takes a purpose, only time will tell. Thank you for the blood that brought us Simply Wondered and thank you Simply Wondered for a memorable rant. And if I said it wrong It must have been a bloody stupid thought.

  2. Thanks sw – I wish I knew as much about my family history, and wish I could tie it in so eloquently with politics and principles. Perhaps if I did know more about family, I would understand the bigger pic much better – your post is an education and inspiration.

  3. Thanks SW. We come from very similar mining community roots up here in the North. My grandfather won a scholarship to Blyth grammar school (I know its methadone city now but this was back then) and it looked as though his dream of being a schoolteacher was within his sight. However, his father died of pneumoconiosis from pit work and my granddad as the eldest of 12 children was obliged to abandon his scholarship and dreams of teaching to support the family in the only available way for a working class family from Holywell – down the mines at 14. He was involved in a memorable pit disaster (I think at Earsdon) and was disabled and unable to work again from age 33. Married and with three children.

    Gawd sorry for that – as I come over all maudlin

  4. P.S. His daughter (my aunt) later also went on to win a scholarship to Blyth grammar and proceeded to win another scholarship to Oxford University to graduate with a first class honours in maths. Not bad for a mining family from the north east *in them days* lol

  5. yes sparks – it didn’t sound maudlin; more like ordinary, everyday reality for lots of working people all over the country, not just our little corner of it; not to mention a world i have no direct experience of – just hearing about it from my grandad made me feel … everything: proud of him, of all the men and women who got on and lived lives genuinely oppressed by a whole other class, angry that this other class did all they could to keep people down, purely so they could add to their already obscene amounts of wealth, horrified that it was so close in time to our own lives, amazed that so many did what your aunt did and beat the system to win themselves a slightly less uneven patch of playing field – bloody lucky it wasn’t me living that reality. that was one of the ironies of the miners’ strike (and not lost on the communities themselves – the women had laid out too many husbands and sons not to be aware) and of every struggle of the pit communities to hold onto jobs for their children that could maim, cripple and slowly asphyxiate them. i certainly romanticise it (while trying not to lose sight of the grim reality) – my mother never did; just like (i imagine) your relatives who were brought up in that remote world. she knew she was lucky that they always had plenty to eat, that her father wasn’t killed quickly or slowly by his job, that they could afford to send her to teacher training college. an archive of the lives of the women of pit villages in their words would be an amazing thing – and if there isn’t one already, it’s almost too late. i want to take my son to big pit while it’s still guided by former miners… it won’t be long now, and maybe it’s no bad thing.
    and now here’s me living next door to big dave c instead of smelly ordinary people with coal dust on their faces; what an honour…

  6. sparkle – sorry! i forgot to say thank you; it’s always special to hear from someone from a pit background – i’m not claiming it makes people better but it chimes with me; i can never hear from anyone connected with that industry, with those communities without feeling the years of history standing behind my own easy life. i worked with an actor from a family of newfoundland asbestos miners and without our really saying much about it, i felt there was lots i shared with her.

  7. SW – I understand. Both my grandmother and grandfather (maternal line) came from mining families. Okay maybe romanticising here – but no this was reality – after my granddads accident he fed his family from a huge garden and an allotment from – aye, Shiremoor. With the vegetables, chickens, geese and of course the obligatory rhubarb and my grandma worked in a hotel/pub (almost unheard of for women in the 40’s but before long she became manager- just wish I could remember the name as you probably will remember it as it was in the centre of town.) It’s about survival SW something privileged people only muse about.

  8. i am honoured that you think i’m so well-informed about the watering holes of shiremoor, but the closest i ever got was the miner’s arms in backworth. we were rehearsing there (backworth, rather than the pub itself, tho that would have been an idea…) and the cast went out on the piss. the bloke came round selling tickets for the meat draw and some baffled actors bought tickets – one of the veggies won first prize – she was a bit shocked to see it was (amazingly) a lovely mixed grill. it was a good night – i was commuting from north shields on the bike … think i slept somewhere in longbenton. and if you know your geography (or are sufficiently sad to try and track my route on google earth – yes admittedly a bit of a longshot), you’ll know that was the route of a very drunk man.

  9. My grandmothers Pub was is the centre of THE Toon – not shiremoor which only had the Bluebelle, Beaumont and the Cleuuub (northumbrian speak). Don’t need google earth – I know the route 🙂

  10. once again i underestimate you, sparkling one – or perhaps your lineage. tho i did not mean to impugn your geography; the suggestion that some readers might need to use google earth to realise that only a drunken cyclist would go from backworth to north shields via longbenton was more for those of a southern persuasion. mayhap you have even found yourself pissed under a pushbike in longbenton wondering how on earth you had gone so badly wrong in your journey to the coast… almost a poor northern (wo)man’s bat out of hell…
    i had forgotten to throw in that my great grandmother on my father’s side ran the salutation in tynemouth. we are yet more closely linked… do tell me which pub your grandma ran in the toon (not the pig and whistle, i trust).

  11. Not the Pig nooo. I cannot remember – it was fairly near the Station but has been demolished now. The (?) Hotel…aye that’s it.

    Anyway, with reference to shiremoor Cleuuub my grandmother during WW11 would wish for Hitler to drop a beuuum on the ruddy place. My grandfather spent some time there as he was a committee member you see – and on his way home from the allotment at Backworth

  12. couldn’t have done much business with a crappy name like The (?) Hotel. might as well have called it ‘the mackem’s arse’.

  13. Hmm, we might be related if you go back far enough. My grandfather was Thomas Milburn, descended from Cumbrian miners, but became a teacher/headmaster instead.

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