Miners 1984: in the thick of it

Miners review: Inspirational collection

Martin Jenkinson, Mark Metcalf, Mark Harvey Images of the past: the miners’ strike Pen and Sword Books, pp216, £14.99

To mark the 30th anniversary of the miners’ Great Strike several new books have hit the shelves (Seumas Milne’s republication of The enemy within seems to be simply an attempt to capture the renewed interest in the subject rather than add anything new - or revise any of his myopic views on Arthur Scargill).

The first of these, Images of the past: the miners’ strike, poses a problem, in that it is essentially a photographic collection. A picture speaks a thousand words (and in the case of Martin Jenkinson probably a lot more), so mere verbal description will never capture the magnificence and strength of his work. The book - and many of the exhibitions of photos which accompanied its launch, as well as many of the big commemorations - was put together by Justine, his daughter, and wife, Edwina, in tribute to him. Helping to present and edit the work, adding his artistic photo professionalism, is Mark Harvey, manager of iD8 Photography, with his 20 years’ experience in labour movement, trade union and documentary photography.

Martin Jenkinson’s formal union role was as the official photojournalist for The Miner and Yorkshire Miner, but his wider role as a radical freelance photographer for the labour movement at large was almost unparalleled. An active trade unionist in his own right and member of the National Union of Journalists national executive, he covered protests, demonstrations, conferences and strikes, and all and every platform where the working class in its multiple aspects made its political voice heard. He built up over the years a massive collection, a photo library whose imagery lights up the texts of labour movement and trade union history, even already vibrant texts of struggle and hope. Ever prepared to allow his work to be used to illustrate articles, he would express his disquiet to me after photos that had gradually been absorbed into my own collections and albums emerged years later uncredited, or at times credited to me!

One thing was certain: with the exception of the photojournalists from News Line, Martin would be almost alone shooting from within our ranks rather than from behind police lines. He was in the thick of the 1984-85 strike where the fighting raged and his safety could be in serious jeopardy. The bulk of this work deals with the scenes from the picket lines, the occupied villages, the food halls, the families and the communities through that bitter 12 months. Martin uses striking black and white images; close up, personal and deeply moving. They are monuments to his art and his commitment to the working class.

Accompanying the collection is a strong historical and political narrative of the strike by Mark Metcalf. The downside in a book of this nature is that it comes without sources and footnotes - not the author’s choice, but those of the publishers, whose topical history genre requires ‘easy reading’ styles. Mark has greatly benefited in his work from the critical reviews of earlier books by authors who tripped themselves up with basic mistakes and, in the case of some academic and journalistic works, complete factual inaccuracies.

Mark makes only one such inaccuracy worthy of mention. Around the vexed subject of Orgreave, not so much in relation to the vindictive, murderous assault by the police, but the cause of the debacle. Mark says the steelworkers at Scunthorpe wanted coke to produce steel and when this was refused unilaterally crossed the picket lines to get it. This is not true. Their request for union-sanctioned coke was made to stop the linings of the vast furnaces collapsing, thus wiping out the plant. The quid pro quo was that they would not produce steel from the start of the strike and did not do so. It was only when Arthur decided more or less unilaterally to stop all such safety exemptions that Bill Sirs, general secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Federation, got his long-term wish - ISTC members were told to adopt a ‘fuck ’em’ attitude and abandon the ‘no steel’ policy, running their lorries through our lines at Orgreave and into scab history.

This is a small, but fundamental mistake, which in no way detracts from the otherwise solid presentation of the facts and inspirational collection of photos. It is a great tribute to Martin and his work, and a monument to the militant working class themes he presents.

David Douglass