Throughout In Loving Memory of Work: A Visual Record of the UK Miners’ Strike 1984-85, designer and author Craig Oldham uses a variety of techniques to bring events of 30 years ago into sharp focus. As the book’s title suggests, its main concern is to examine the unique visual culture of protest created by the miners and those who supported their cause, which emerged during this pivotal year in British social and political life.The assembly of interviews and recollections, the spotlighting of certain images and graphics from the time, reveals a determination to approach the subject from all angles. With its cover-wrap lettering made from ink infused with Barnsley coal dust, it’s a project very much of the mines and of the people who worked in them. But as much as it is an emotive account of what happened, it is also a highly detailed one, offering much to pore over and reflect upon.
Oldham makes his connection to the events of 1984-85 clear from the outset and his project is understandably – and unavoidably – an intensely personal one. Born weeks after the end of the strike, three generations of his family had worked in Barnsley pits and the year-long strike went on to make an indelible mark on him via the stories of relatives and friends. “These stories … described the broader narrative of the miners’ strike,” he writes, “a narrative that, over time, created a curious back-story to my own life.” During the strike, Oldham’s father Mick was arrested and prosecuted by South Yorkshire police and his son’s book is ultimately in honour of the miners’ struggle – “a celebration and living reminder of their dissent”.
From today’s perspective, the visual language of protest is at once familiar and distant. In the villages and towns where strikes and picketing took place, posters, placards, banners and flyers were the main tools of demonstration.
These elements still form a key part of most contemporary protest – the Occupy movement is a good example – but both the sharing of messages and the methods of organisation enabled by the internet age have radically changed the nature of engagement. To more clearly understand the time in question, Oldham has brought in several other voices that add colour to the story: we hear from three of the women at the heart of the strike action, Aggie Currie, Anne Scargill and Betty Cook; from photographer John Harris, who captured the most memorable image of the campaign as a truncheon-wielding policeman took aim at protestor Lesley Boulton during the infamous ‘Battle of Orgreave’; and also from several voices who offer some critical distance to the work itself: writer and critic Rick Poynor, designers Jonathan Barnbrook, Ian Anderson and Ken Garland, and artist Jeremy Deller.
The actual background to the miners’ strike is dealt with over a few pages, and rather than provide a detailed history of events following the National Coal Board’s formation on New Year’s Day in 1947, Oldham cuts to the chase to chart the conflict that arose from the Conservative government’s announcement on March 6 1984 to close 20 pits across the north of England, Scotland and Wales, cutting 20,000 jobs in the process. Oldham contextualises the lead-up, citing Ian MacGregor’s appointment as chairman of the NCB in 1983, Margaret Thatcher’s plans to attack and weaken Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers, and the leaking of the Ridley Report which had disclosed the wider, highly destructive plans for the coal industry. A week after the government’s intention to close the first of several pits was made clear, Scargill declared a national strike.
Oldham brings a designer’s eye to these events, looking at everything from the urgent handmade messages written on boarding and scrawled graffiti, to more crafted objects – union banners, badges and posters. Again, the voice of the miners is palpable in these assembled objects, as is that of the families who endured the strike along with them. Oldham also dedicates much of the book to the role and influence of the many women’s groups that evolved out of the protests, such as the highly organised Women Against Pit Closures. The book’s title, In Loving Memory of Work, comes from text written on a black armband thrown onto the steps of 10 Downing Street during a WAPC march in London.
The miners’ story here is intrinsically about struggle – not just in relation to the events of the strike, but to the campaign for justice that carries on to this day (proceeds from the book are being donated to the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign). Oldham’s interest in all this, other than through his family’s direct experience of it, comes from the fact that these events saw ordinary people do things they had never done before – from making posters and banners, to picketing and demonstrating. That much of this political awakening in people can come from realising the power of a handmade poster, or a photocopied leaflet, makes this particular story all the more affecting.