The Real 1984

June Baird

June Baird

Like any other child would, I remember the chaos of that first weekend in March. Exciting chants of camaraderie were darkened by waves of pushing and random crushing.  All of us hung on for dear life in a sick and claustrophobic rendition of the Hokey-Cokey dance.   An exhilarating terror spurred us onwards, defiant; we were warriors.  Air splayed repeatedly in a whizz of truncheon malice.  The stench of horse shit squelched under Doc Martens and pit boots, while a percussion of coconut shells treaded the cobbles.

Had she known where I was, Mum would have killed me.  Jane and I were skipping Saturday morning’s squash game at The Rec.  Jane’s dad was on strike and the whole family were out to show their support.  The Greenes were our closest friends and neighbours.   They’d also been a part of the huge Scottish exodus of unemployed miners at the end of the seventies, lured by the promise of working collieries and a heavily subsidised pit house.  The head of the family, Jimmy, worked under my step-dad in Ollerton Colliery; his wife Brenda worked with my mum at the sewing factory for twenty pence a ‘piece.’   I went to the local Comprehensive with Jane and her two brothers, Tommy and James.

Flasks of home-made soup and chopped up egg sandwiches made it all feel like an adventure.  Just like our annual bus trip to Blackpool, where we all got given a pound note for the amusements and a goody bag for the journey.  It always doubled as a sick bag once the goodies had been devoured; usually before we’d even pulled out of the village.  I wanted to be part of this too.  Experience it for myself.

“Scab! Scab! Filthy Scabs!” The chants came and went with every bus that made its way through the gates.   Huge banners crafted in beautiful colours wafted in the breeze, announcing each area of support, whilst smaller ones called for “Coal Not Dole,” “Victory to the Miners,” and hailed “King Arthur.”  Men threw themselves like human barriers in front of the cars before a military style police-force swooped in and broke them.  Retaliating brothers met plastic shields in skull-crushing thuds.  A cacophony of baritone groans and screams from a hundred proud matriarchs hung in the air as I felt my footing slip below me.  This was no place for a child.  Not even the mature, politically-aware teenager that I was developing into.

Some events are so prolific that they change the course of every witness, rendering their inability to forgive incomprehensible to all others: Twenty yards away, such an event had just taken place.  One of that day’s strikers had just been killed. David Jones, a Yorkshireman and a father of two, had been hit by a flying brick whilst showing his solidarity for his fellow striking miners.

That was only the beginning.  David’s blood would go on to taint the innocence of this once picturesque village, causing a cataclysmic, proletarian domino effect to take place within a thousand more.

 

Mum said there was no way I was wearing my “Frankie Says Relax” T shirt for our first day back to school after the summer holidays.  I was devastated.  The Dukeries Comprehensive had no uniform restrictions, so I really couldn’t see the kafuffle.  I had it all picked out: paisley patterned jeans with a red stripe down the seam, fluorescent green socks that matched my fingerless gloves, Diadora trainers,  and my fake Kappa trackie top we’d bought in July from a nice man in Torremolinos.  Everything else was ok, she’d said, and told me to replace the Frankie top for my Wham! one.  George Michael’s bouffant had started to peel at the edges from too many boil washes and I feared that even in pristine condition, it would be regarded a far less cool addition to my ensemble.  I folded my Frankie shirt neatly in the bottom of my P.E. kit bag to change in the bogs before registration.

I could see Jane at her kitchen window as I strolled up to her house en route to school.  She met me at her gate with a smile, but I could tell she had been crying.

“What’s up?”  I asked, looking back at her dad, who had taken her place at the window.

“Nothing,” Jane mumbled as I expected she would, and continued to walk with her head to the floor.

“Tell me, we’re mates, aren’t we?” I said casually, as I tore apart two bananas I’d swiped from the fruit bowl in our hall and handed her one.   Her banana was finished before I’d even unpeeled mine properly.  I had this ritual where I always removed the bottom bit first before putting it back in its skin.  Mum said that’s where banana spiders crawl up and live when they are still in bunches in the trees of the jungle.  Since then I’d always checked first.  “So what’s wrong?”

“Dad doesn’t have any change for our dinners today so he said we’ve to come home for something.” She only took her head from the path for a split second to throw her banana skin on Old Maggie’s overgrown lawn.

“Cool, much better than school dinners.  Have you got any of them Curry Pot Rice things? I’ll come back with you!”

I hadn’t noticed she’d stopped a couple of steps before.

“We’ve no flipping Pot Rices, no Pot Noodles and no flipping well pot to piss in,” she scolded me.

I stood there for a minute and tried to absorb it all.  Her jacket sleeves were two inches too short and ripped at the cuffs.  Her unbranded trainers were badly scuffed where no amount of whitener could cover or repair.  She carried a de-scrunched Co-op carrier bag with what looked like a couple of books inside.

“Mum left,” she went on.  “Some Yuppy, Dad said.  With a job and a caravan in Skeggy.”

“I’ve got two quid eighty,” was all I could muster as I turned back and started walking purposely towards the tennis courts at the bottom of the campus.  “We’ll go up the main street and get chips and curry sauce and a couple of cartons of Um Bongo.  My shout.”  We walked the next six minutes to school in reflective silence.

 

Miss Partridge was one of life’s victims and always looked as if she was on the verge of a serious nervous breakdown.  She taught my typing class on a Monday morning.  I chose Typing instead of a science because not only was it an easier option, but more importantly, because I was going to become a great journalist one day.  Preferably for Smash Hits.  I worried that the most my classmates aspired to was secretarial status, perhaps as a P.A. to a C.E.O.  But I deemed even that to be submissive in the day and age of a female Prime Minister.   Today Miss Partridge wore dark glasses for reasons only known to her, and it just cried out for a morning of Elvis impersonations.   Twenty ‘Thank you very much’ and ‘Uhuhuh’s from myself, much to the amusement of the class, rendered her slumped to her chair in defeat; glasses hidden by both of her hands.

Later, when I was beginning to feel a little sorry for her and she was preoccupied showing Julie Chryston how to change the ribbon on her Olympia, Karen Philpott carefully unwrapped and placed a tampon on her desk.  When she sat back down and Karen screamed “Mouse!” I can honestly say I’ve never seen a teacher move so fast.  Except for the seriously butch Miss Marlowe, who took us for P.E., of course.

The little bit of pee that escaped me made me laugh all the more and it set Jane off next to me.  Miss Partridge was yanking us all up one by one from our seats and pushing us towards the door.

“Out! Get out you dismal creatures!”  Her glasses had fallen off in a power struggle with Jane, revealing a cracker of a black eye.  The hilarity petered out.  “Philpott, Greene, McCracken!   Detention after this class!  Sit out in the hallway now!”

“I’m not sitting with that Scab!” protested Jane.

“Who are you calling a Scab?” Karen Philpott sprayed, her own brand of venom erupting right back in my mate’s face.  Karen was a bully at the best of times, but it had been a rough week for her family, starting with a brick through their living room window in the middle of the night.   “You’re a Gypo, and you smell worse than my dog.”

Miss Partridge and I joined forces for once and tried to separate the two girls.  It was fierce.  Fingernails in big hair and the frantic jangling of cheap cosmetic jewellery.   A high pitched scream signalled someone had been bitten.

“You dirty cow! Miss, I need a tetanus!” Karen squealed and stared wide eyed at the teeth mark on her wrist that had, even to my horror, broken the skin.  “Miss, she’s crawling with rabies, I need the school nurse now!”

Jane sat sobbing in the doorway, clutching the broken locket her mum had given her last Christmas in both her shaking hands.  I looked around to see the classroom had split in two.  The kids of striking miners were walking towards me and Jane, while everyone else attended to Karen.   The sheer outnumbering reflected the greater mood of this pitiful county.   I looked over at Miss Partridge, who’d recovered her sunglasses and was sitting by the windows, swaying trancelike, side to side in a chair that was meant for swivelling.

 

I couldn’t think what good my top loader VHS video recorder would be without my television. Secretly, I was raging.  My beautiful white portable Sony TV with the xylophone style sensitive touch buttons on the top had been removed from my bedroom.  It was now on loan to The Greenes, as they’d had everything repossessed.  I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I gathered that they had to sell everything just to eat.  Every Friday we went to our larger supermarket and mum took one trolley and filled it, while my step dad did the same with another.  We were what everyone called ‘Jammy.’  My step dad was a Deputy at the pit, a member of the NACODS union and for some reason, they chose not to support their colleagues in going all out.  It had been discussed many times in our house; the possibility of it all.  How we’d have to live without Mum’s Ford Orion Ghia and his cherished Honda CBX 1000, maybe even our new top of the range twenty eight inch Sony TV that had a remote control with a long cable.

I was looking for last Sunday’s cassette recording of the Top 40 when I heard the letter box rattle on the front door.  A full blast retaliation of Two Tribes was in order, closely followed by When Doves Cry.  I understood the concept of giving up what you had to friends less fortunate, but I still felt like I was getting a raw deal.  I had a pirate copy of The Entity and was planning to watch it when nobody was around.

A real commotion was coming from downstairs, tempting me away from my task in hand.  There in our hallway stood my mum, step dad, Jane Greene, her brothers and two police officers.  There were sobs and whispers all mixed with looks of horror and despair.  As I slowly descended our staircase, I knew they’d haunt me forever.

Like many other strong family men throughout that dark year, the humiliation and sheer depravation had proved too much for Jimmy Greene.  Not even the unequivocal love of his three children could have loosened that noose once he had tied it.

***

Author’s Note: On 20th July 1984, Great Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, branded almost two hundred thousand hard-working mine workers “The Enemy Within” during her plan to slowly but surely close over one hundred and seventy pits during her period in office. Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister is regarded as one of the UK’s most politically divisive eras, whose legacy left the country as polarized with her death on 8th April 2013 as it had during her lifetime. The classes who had never suffered under the policies of Thatcherism responded with outrage and confusion to celebrations of her death in the streets.  I tell my story—just one of many stories that remember “The Real 1984”—to try and shine a light into the dark parts of 1984, and help bridge that divide of understanding.

9 Comments

  1. very enjoyable june I never experienced the minor strick but I felt as if I was there keep up the good work xx

  2. Outstanding-June Baird’s account had me crushed, validated and uplifted by her wise observation that “Some events are so prolific that they change the course of every witness, rendering their inability to forgive incomprehensible to all others.” My father was a union leader for over 40 years in a rust belt city-I know about strikes-and have never been able to separate myself from the misfortunes chiseled into the faces of the workers I came to know. At the end of the day, they never recouped the lost wages, the meals they and their families went without–, but they recouped that small dignity when they picketed injustice served by greed. Yes, once you witness it, like a DNA mutation, it can’t be uncoiled.

  3. So glad you liked it Jacqui, thank you very much for your comment. Very much appreciated.

  4. Bless you Joe, thank you so much for that comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it and even more that you identified with it. It was written in response to Margaret Thatcher’s death and I just felt compelled that the rest of the world knew what really happened under her reign.

  5. Isn’t it interesting how history gets lost–and our children learn to revere those who stand against the ones who struggle to eke out a living. Here in the US people are constantly voting against their self-interest because the powerful twist and erase history lest the new generation wise up and demand a decent wage.

  6. I do despair sometimes Joe. Even our unions have lost their way a bit and are being vilified, losing battles and public sympathy. I meant to say that my father was also a union shop steward and fought many a battle against capitalist greed in Scotland. Anyway it’s almost midnight here and Santa Claus has been! Merry Christmas to you and yours when it comes!

  7. A riveting, unforgettable account. So sad and enraging. Living in the U.S., I had no idea that Thatcher was hated so much.

  8. Thanks for your kind comment David. That was the exact reason I felt it needed to be written. There’s a whole generation in the UK have no idea WHY she was hated so much and they need to know the truth. Don’t believe everything the media reports!

  9. As soon as I started reading I was transported back to 1984. June’s sparkling language captures the moment perfectly, and how it felt to a teenager of the time. It’s too easy to forget the effect Thatcherism had on everyone living outside the home counties, and how poor her attitude was to the British public in general. The woman was a bully. The basic core values of ‘Caring for People’ and ‘Value for Money’ became fused into ‘Caring for Money’ and ‘Value from People’ and it ruined so many lives and families, just as June portrays. An excellent piece – congratulations, June, great job.

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