By Colin Revolting
It’s 1984 – not what Orwell had in mind but just as grim. Thousand strike under Thatcher’s Britain against pit closures and job cuts. In Goldsmiths, Richard Hoggart is dean, and Colin Fancy, 23, who just started studying Media and Communications, decides to join the Students’ Union in supporting the miners’ strike. Thirty years later, he shares his memoirs of the time with The Leopard, and tells how it made him the socialist activist he remains to this day.
Spring term 1984
A group of Goldsmiths SU activists are chatting in the bar when we hear that the National Union of Miners (NUM) have come out on strike. It’s bad timing for both the miners and for me. It’s the beginning of spring so coal is in less demand, while I was about to ease up on being so active in the SU because of first year exams looming. Oh well…
Talk in the bar turns into a heated discussion about the miners strikes of the 70s; the power cuts which plunged us all into darkness and eventually brought down the Tory government. We would love to see history repeated and an end to the Thatcher regime… “Maggie, Maggie Maggie… OUT! OUT! OUT!”
There’s something in the air, something is beginning. So far being at Goldsmiths has felt like living on an island while South East London roars past, but the outside world is about to impact all of us – and in my case affect the rest of my life.
Summer term 1984
When we return after Easter the miners’ strike has spread across the country, except in Nottinghamshire coalfield where most miners are refusing to join in. A call goes out for a mass picket and march in the heart of Nottinghamshire, so a coach full of Goldsmiths students and other local strike supporters heads North.
“Here we go, here we go, here we go,” everyone sings as we parade down Mansfield High Street, holding high the Goldsmiths SU banner. A National Coal Board (NCB) train trundles across a bridge above us piled high with coal – the NCB are boasting that the strike isn’t biting and power cuts are a long way off.
After a long and down-hearting day, it takes Lindsey Roth, a third year nursing student and experienced trade unionist, to offer another perspective. “Who supported the Asian women on the Grunwicks picket lines in 1976? It wasn’t the Labour Government. It wasn’t the TUC. It was miners who stood in solidarity with them,” she said.
The miners need money, for petrol so they can travel the country as flying pickets, and to feed their families. Lindsey calls the first meeting of the Goldsmiths’ Miners Support Group. We rattle buckets all around college crying: “Dig deep for the miners!” We propose a solidarity motion that is debated and passed at a packed Students’ Union meeting. We paste up posters saying ‘VICTORY TO THE MINERS’ all along Lewisham Way and down Deptford High Street.
My department, Media and Communications, announces that lecturers are to be cut from the small staff team. The SU calls a meeting on the College Green to begin action. Some people suggest letters to the College Dean whilst we call for an occupation. The anti-cuts campaign begins with petitions, motions and lobbying the governors but soon picks up speed. Before we know it we are occupying the Administration building (which would later be renamed Whitehead building). James Curran, the recently appointed Head of the Communications department, is known for his book, Power Without Responsibility – and with the addition of a question mark this phrase is emblazoned on a huge banner hung across the occupied building.
Passions of all kinds are running high during the occupation, there’s a constant fear of eviction by the police, days of debate, visits from students, miners and other trade unionists; we sleep on the hard office floors. For over a week the experience is exhilarating but also exhausting. The mood is fairly serious and as activists we are always looking to make the occupation as effective as possible. But having reached the ripe old age of 23 avoiding responsibility of any kind, I definitely find the collective responsibility of running the occupation a challenge and, being a local boy, sneak off to my family home for Sunday dinner and a bath. I’m soon back in the throng, drawn by the little taste of powerthat we have achieved through disrupting the college machine…
The end of year exams are approaching like a ten ton truck hurtling down Lewisham Way. These exams are the most important I will face at college as they are the gateway to two more years of free education, and a grant to live on while I make short films and pursue my other passions. But, what will the piece of paper I may receive at the end of the degree enable me to do? Return to the uncertainty of unemployment and depression of the early 80’s, exactly what I came to college to escape?
In the occupation I get to know a lot of different people. One is a second year Communications student – hearing I’ve got an essay deadline hanging over my head he loans me a paper written the previous year. I sit in a quiet corner and plagiarise…
Richard Hoggart, the College Dean, is reaching retirement and plays a waiting game rather than call the police – not that we do much to provoke him. With summer holidays approaching we end the occupation after eight days and sit our exams. The cuts to staff are postponed and we cautiously celebrate.
I have enough money left over from my grant (that’s right, I had a grant!) to take a trip to Thailand with my good friend and now eminent Goldsmiths Professor and UCU activist – as the trip was partly financed by us returning with suitcases full of counterfeit branded sportswear he better remain nameless… (Hi!)
Lindsey graduates and it takes time for me to recognise that she lead our group of activists with such a sophisticated and unassuming manner that it was easy not to realise she was doing so. Perhaps ‘guiding’ us better describes what Lindsey did, with much patience, persuasion and determination. I’m the first to admit that when it’s left to me to co-ordinate the group; I fail to do so without annoying several supporters.
Autumn term 1984
Amazingly the miners’ strike is still going strong when we return to college, and I have passed my exams. But a shortage of funds and food means things are now more desperate for the miners’ families. Women from the mining communities are playing a more and more crucial role as the strike fights to sustain itself. Two women from the Shirebrook Colliery in Derbyshire come to our Union meeting. Though nervous and reluctant to speak they tell moving tales of hardship, solidarity and resilience.
The SU president chairing the meeting is a Liberal Democrat (don’t ask!) and insists: “Questions only, no speeches.” In response to the questions the women describe breaking out of their former lives of kids, kitchen and mundane jobs and how they’re “never going back.” I raise my hand and the SU president reminds me: “No speeches, only questions…” We hope more students will actively support the strike so I mention the meetings and activities of the Miners Support Group and our coach to a mass picket at Tilbury power station. As I do so, the President keeps butting in: “Ask a question Colin, or sit down…”
I say to the Derbyshire women: “We’ve collected £347 this term… Do you want it?”
“Yes please,” they smile appreciatively.
Surprisingly, Goldsmiths has its own local coalfield – there are five pits less than an hour away in Kent. One Sunday afternoon in December a coach load of students head down to Betteshanger Colliery with some Christmas presents. We have an evening in the Miners’ Social Club and are put up in miners’ family homes. We rise before dawn to join the other miners and students marching down the dark country lanes to the pit, singing: “I’d rather be a picket than a scab.” Not a single miner has crossed their picket line, but neither have they persuaded the foremen at the pit to join the strike, so the picket is a dignified but frustrating affair and we’re soon back to the social club for sausage sandwiches. Our host, Alan, laments: “We’ve been left to fight Thatcher alone – Labour and TUC abandoned us.”
As well as marches, meetings and pickets of power stations, many benefit gigs, comedy and social events are organised to support the miners. Evenings of drinking, dancing and laughter raise spirits and well needed cash. At one gig a friend is so incensed that the band isn’t acknowledging the miners that he harangues them; they shout back that they had done many benefits for the miners but also have to earn something for themselves. I grab a beer mug and stand at the door collecting as people leave.
Despite increased hardship and the failure of Trade Union leaders to organise strike action there is generous solidarity from supporters (over a third of the population support the miners) and the miners stand firm through Christmas and into the New Year…
Spring term 1985
Fatigue is affecting everyone involved in the strike, but rattling buckets back in the college bar still raise some money and some debate. “What about the violence on picket lines?” asks one student. “When the police aren’t around there is no violence,” I answer. The student attends the Miners Support Group the following week to pursue the debate further. She introduces herself as Kirsti and a month later joins the final Victory to the Miners march across London. Almost a year into the dispute I’m grateful to have someone to carry the Goldsmiths’ Students Union banner with. “Here we go, here we go, here we go…”
The most militant miners lead part of the march down Whitehall towards No. 10 Downing Street – Thatcher hasn’t erected those metal gates at the time. The police are determined to stop the crowd, push turns to shove. “The workers united will never be defeated,” everyone chants, linking arms. Fighting breaks out, a reflection of the bitterness, determination and frustration of the miners and their supporters. In a photo taken by a fellow Communications student, me and Kirsti are holding up the banner. From these beginnings our friendship grows, we become comrades in arms, partners in crime and end up today living together with our two teenage children (who will feel the delights and difficulties of being a modern student very soon, no doubt.)
The strike ends in defeat. This will impact on the country for decades.
The women and men of the mining communities fought an astonishing battle and were made to pay a bitter price by the government. Those of us at Goldsmiths who fought alongside the miners gave something of ourselves to support the strike but received so much more in return. In sometimes small, but significant, ways we have continued to do so down the decades… VICTORY TO THE MINERS!
(By the way I got a 2.1 – activity and academic achievement can mix.)
Colin, now 53, recently stopped working in arts education due to budget cuts. He is still a South-East Londoner and still fighting for a better world for all.
Dedicated to the memory of life-long socialist, Lindsey Roth – a warm, determined and hopeful person. 1953 – 2011 “She had a kind word to say for everyone – except the Tories.”