"Mercy is for Christians, and solidarity is for socialists." | The Baffler

Nostalgia Mining

The UK Miners' Strike and historical memory

"Mercy is for Christians, and solidarity is for socialists." | The Baffler
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Part one of a two-part dispatch from the North of England.


Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite 
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?  
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?  
For the union makes us strong

I was sitting in the Pitman’s Parliament, or Council Chamber, at Red Hills—the somewhat faded yet still undeniably grand and stately union hall that has remained headquarters for the Durham Miners’ Association since its construction in 1915, when the union’s membership was swelling past 120,000 and they required a new, larger building. According to the UK’s Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 1920 saw peak employment for British coal, with 1,191,000 employed by the industry in total. It has experienced relatively steady decline due to pit closures ever since; there were 703,000 miners in 1956, 250,000 in 1976, ten thousand in 1993, and two thousand in 2015. In 2016, the once mighty National Union of Mineworkers counted 750 members, with about a hundred still active.

The Pitman’s Parliament operated much as a national parliament did, with assigned seats for union representatives from coal pits across Durham County. I initially chose seat 115—formerly for the representative from Ushaw Moor,[1] mainly because I thought the name sounded pretty. However, after consulting the seating chart, I quickly switched to seat 103—where once sat the gentleman from North Bitchburn—feeling the name more appropriate to my idiom. According to Whellan’s 1894 Directory of County Durham, seven hundred men and boys (meaning children) worked in the North Bitchburn Colliery that year, and they put out seven hundred tons of coal a day. As of 2001, North Bitchburn had a population of 135.

The last pit in the Durham coalfield closed in 1993,[2] but I was nonetheless there to attend the 134th Durham Miners’ Gala—still the largest trade union event of its kind, with around a hundred thousand attendees, all there to celebrate the power of the labor movement and the men of a once-massive industrial labor union that essentially no longer exists. Everyone I met radiated a resilient hope and joy. It was pleasantly confounding.

On my tour of Red Hills earlier that day, we had walked past an old avocado-green telephone mounted to the wall in a hallway; it was covered in vintage orange stickers that read “Coal Not Dole”—one of the many charming anachronisms tucked away in the building. “Those have been there since the 80s,” said my fixer, a nice young man whose grandfather was a miner, “and the stickers are from the strike.” For readers not up on their British labor history, he is referring to the UK Miners’ Strike of 1984–1985, a valiant and heroic fight against union busting, job elimination, and ultimately, the privatization of industry and energy by the Margaret Thatcher-lead Tories. It was the most significant postwar labor battle in the West, and its failure was a world historical tragedy the likes of which would break the boldest of hearts.

The Brits preserve their history with the unconscious compulsion of pathological hoarders.

No labor action today comes close to it in either size or ambition, especially in America. Recent teachers’ strikes have been impressive, but the demands were (sensibly) modest, the fights highly localized, and since schools aren’t exactly central to immediate production, the teachers were easy for most of the media to ignore. In New York, the building trades are still fighting to keep the $25 billion Hudson Yards development a closed shop, but again, very local. And if you want to read about construction unions, you’ll mostly find coverage in the right-wing papers, who all but run press releases for the real estate developers currently attempting to crush workers. And of course, a small group of professorial feminists seem to call for another symbolic “Women’s Strike” every week now, despite the complete and total ineffectuality of such actions, none of which have even slightly resembled anything approaching a strike. The amnesia of such “activistism” makes it difficult to avoid the cliche about the definition of insanity, but then again, American leftists have always had particularly bad memories. The Brits on the other hand appear to sometimes suffer from an excess of historical context. I mean, it’s just lousy with memories over there.

My fixer continued, “I think we just kind of . . . forgot to uninstall the phone. A while back we were cleaning out some drawers and found a whole bunch of fliers for the strike were just stuffed in there for storage.”

The Brits preserve their history with the unconscious compulsion of pathological hoarders. Unlike in the United States, where our drive for “modernity” manifests as a manic cycle of construction and demolition ad nauseam, the British often overlook both unfashionability and conspicuous obsolescence and just sort of . . . forget to throw things out. Things like the monarchy or the Anglican Church.

The resulting ambiance of this preservation-by-procrastination is far more dynamic and far less conservative than one would expect; it doesn’t feel “old” so much as vibrantly intergenerational. The exception to this tendency is of course London, significant portions of which were partially obliterated in the Blitz. So in addition to having replaced as many productive industries as possible with FIRE economies, much of London is an architectural (as well as a neoliberal) nightmare. Central London in particular has been heavily homogenized into a bland sea of European Unionism and Pret A Mangers. The rest of England, however, doesn’t seem quite so embarrassed by last season’s architecture or political economy, resulting in a sort of charmingly cluttered historicism.

For example, in a small meeting room at Red Hills, you will see a framed letter somewhat carelessly propped against a wall; the face of Joseph Stalin takes up more than one third the length of the stationery. The letter was sent in 1943 by the USSR ambassador; it’s a thank you note from the Soviets to the miners for the gift of an X-ray machine, signed by Papa Joe himself. It reads:

I would like once again extend to all those who contributed towards the Mobile X-Ray unit my heartfelt thanks and appreciation. These units are the means of saving many of the lives of our brave Fighters, and I know the people of my country will look upon this gift as a token of your sympathy and solidarity with them and their struggle against our common enemy [i.e., the Nazis, not the dastardly capitalist class, in this particular instance]. 

It gives me pleasure to send you a photograph of the unit presented to the people of Stalingrad by the Durham Miners Association, which also shows the inscription you requested should be placed on their gift.

After the devastating/grievous/piteous defeat of the Miners by the wicked/shameful/reprehensible scoundrel Margaret Thatcher (these are things that cannot be overstated), the great workers’ hero, former president of the NUM Arthur Scargill, gave an address in 2000 to the Stalin Society, an organization founded nine years earlier “to defend Stalin and his work on the basis of fact and to refute the capitalist, revisionist, opportunist, and Trotskyist propaganda directed against him.” When pressed on Stalin’s record, Scargill allowed that “if people were killed, or put into concentration camps, it was wrong,” but that while Stalin had made “many, many errors,” Thatcher had “destroyed our manufacturing industry, people’s hope.”[3]


I am skeptical of Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury and Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Emily Thornberry, as I am of anyone whose father worked with NATO and who sends their children to selective schools. Nevertheless, she lands a decent joke. Condemning Prime Minister Theresa May for holding Donald Trump’s hand, she said, “Melania Trump doesn’t hold his hand, why does she have to do it?”

British Labour leaders were extremely bothered by the hand-holding, which surprised me, as comity between bastards is largely the story of Western capitalism. I don’t even think Theresa May is notably to the left of Trump; she’s merely less stupid and boisterously cruel. And she has a newly reinvigorated Labour Party acting as a bulwark against the sort of American-style capitalist schemes[4] you know she can only dream of at night. At any rate, she had also recently made an absolute ass of herself after curtsying before Prince William with such gracelessness that she resembled a stalking crane (“How much of a fuck-up do you have to be that you can’t even grovel properly?” my fixer joked). In short, May’s obsequiousness was already well-documented, so I never expected her to cold-shoulder The Donald.

One day before the Miners’ Gala, I was charmed/flattered/bullied into speaking briefly at the Durham anti-Trump rally put on by the Unite union. From the news, you’d have thought the entire country was furious over the POTUS visit—another development that I hadn’t expected. I had no interest in being a representative of my fair land, but it is difficult for me to turn down a task when delightful people tell me how wonderful I’d be at it. About an hour before the rally, some staff at Red Hills overheard my American accent and busted into the break room with a rapid and clearly memorized monologue. This is what I remember of it, and I assure you I am not editing or embellishing for color: “I’m related to William McKinley, who was assassinated by a Polish anarchist. But if it weren’t for them dipping a plumb line of piano wire into that pit, we’d never have had the first Geordie on the moon—that’s Neil Armstrong.”

There was more to it than that, but he spoke very quickly, then shook my hand and dashed out like a mad Northern sprite. I’m not sure exactly what fosters such charming eccentricity in the region, but it’s incredibly disarming and always manages to soften my American posture of suspicion. Besides, I looked up the part about Neil Armstrong, and it checks out.

My own speech to the British anti-Trumpists was nothing quite so invigorating, and I was on after MP for Ashton-under-Lyne and Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, who was a trade union officer and has pretty red hair and is very likable. (I had recently bleached my hair the sort of white-blonde that fashionable Brooklyn women and gays love but straight men despise, so I felt a bit ostentatious.) Still, I only panicked in blank terror twice, and I ended with the old standby “only a left of the working class can beat the right.” The crowd all knew who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was and went wild at the mention of her name, but it seemed as if even the most promising and well-positioned left-wing movement in the world felt somewhat panicked, its focus suddenly eclipsed by the spectacle of Trump. I’m not sure exactly what the spooked Brits all thought he would do, but there appeared to be an impression that he would somehow import American racism or run Brexit from behind a curtain. I didn’t know how to tell them he doesn’t even run my country but merely defers to a far more ominous rogue’s gallery of financiers and alt-right ideologues as his brain further liquifies. I also didn’t have the heart to tell them that Britain hardly needs to import racism from the states, since that appears to be one of the few remaining things they manufacture domestically, European Union be damned.[5]

Billy Bragg was there, and he asked me if I knew the second verse of “Solidarity Forever.” I went utterly blank. “I think it’s . . . the one with ‘parasites’” I said, bewildered and not quite sure of myself.[6]

“Eh, I’ll do the first verse and let everyone sing along with the chorus.” And they did. And everyone radiated a resilient hope and joy.


When subjected to too much nostalgia however, that hope and joy—in a distinctly personalized, sepia-toned, and formulaic package—also tends to gloss over the rougher edges in the battle against the moneyed parasites of Thatcherism. The Miners’ Strike of 1984–1985 obviously inspired more than a few documentaries, but it has only been portrayed cinematically in a very limited capacity, most notably in Brassed Off (1996), Billy Elliot (2000), and Pride (2014).

The first of the lot, Brassed Off, isn’t technically about the strike, but I include it in the list because it’s centered on the closure of one of the few remaining pits seven years later, and the trauma of the strike’s defeat hangs heavily over the entire film. It also features the Grimethorpe Colliery Band,[7] who I saw at the Gala in the famous historic parade of brass and pipe bands.

Originally, these bands were funded by industrial employers themselves, who believed that the wholesome activity would keep their workers too busy for both trade unionism (this was unsuccessful) and drink (this was very unsuccessful). Such clumsy feints at social control seriously underestimated the ambition, resilience, and joie de vivre of the British working class, who soon began to fund the bands themselves through union lodges.

Politically, Brassed Off is probably the best of the bunch, ending as it does with a righteous and furious speech directly indicting the Thatcher government and the Tory attack on miners. Pete Postlethwaite, who plays the ex-miner turned bandleader whose lungs were left too ravaged by coal dust to blow a horn himself, thunders and quivers: “If this lot were seals or whales you’d all be up in bloody arms, but they’re not, are they? No. No they’re not. No. They’re just ordinary, common, garden, honest, decent human beings, and not one of them with an ounce of bloody hope left. Oh aye, they can knock out a bloody good tune. But what the fuck does that matter?”

Miners were always more than just miners, but it’s a lot harder to talk about the actual jobs they were fighting for.

Unfortunately, the film tucks these rousing class war refrains into a terrible ‘90s rom-com topped off with some truly incongruous melodrama. Among its many cinematic crimes, Brassed Off features a scene with a miner-turned-birthday-clown having a why-have-you-forsaken-me moment in a church at a children’s party he was hired to entertain. Gesturing at the votives, he questions the Creator’s larger designs on behalf of the mawkish Brits still spinning Beatles records: “What’s He doing? He can take John Lennon. He can take those three young lads down at Ainsley Pit. He’s even thinking of taking my old man. And Margaret bloody Thatcher lives! What’s He sodding playing at, eh?” The character later attempts to hang himself from the pit shaft in full clown makeup. It’s a bit much, to say the least.

My only political nit to pick is with a small but distinct sting of contempt for working class women in the movie. Brassed Off’s heroine and love interest is actually a surveyor for coal company management charged with producing a dog-and-pony-show “report” on which the fate of the pit is said to rest. She’s a former local girl, but she left for the big city, made good, and came back to “Grimley.”[8] The message is clear: the ideal woman is a prim and pretty lady, a member of the professional managerial class who is always rooting for you (even when she’s working against you). She’s someone who can claim working-class roots as an inherited “identity” while still serving the bosses; she can utter the phrase “I’m not the enemy, I’m like you”[9] and believe it.

And indeed, all it takes is her beautiful solo on the flugelhorn and tolerance for a bit of light sexual harassment from the locals before she is immediately welcomed back into the fold. “You were born here,” says Pete Postlethwaite’s character. Well, I was born in a Catholic hospital, but that don’t make me a nun.

Meanwhile, it’s the miners’ wives who spoil the fun: they don’t understand the importance of the band; they’re too caught up in trying to pay the bills. They nag and plead for more money with babies on their hips, and they often demand that their husbands care for these same babies in spite of band practice conflicts. One wife in particular is treated with more contempt than the repo men, scabs, or even Thatcher herself. Apparently the only person worse than the woman taking food out of your children’s mouths is the woman whose job it is to spoon it in.

At best, the working women of Grimley are jokes. At one point, some miners laugh about the “poor old biddies” and their “useless” support on the picket line. These women are better known to the history books as “Women against Pit Closures,”[10] and at the rally Emily Thornberry sang their praises as an essential activist and administrative wing of the union.

In spite of such ample narrative flaws and gender blind spots, the film still has the best politics of any of the miners’ strike period pieces. Brassed Off has the brass balls not to give you a happy ending. Just before the credits roll, the film presents this glum bit of text: “Since 1984 there have been 140 pit closures in great Britain at the cost of nearly a quarter of a million jobs.”

Compare that gut-punching takeaway to the triumph-of-the-prole-spirit fable Billy Elliot. As a balletomane from a bleak nowhere myself, I am of course bound by my passions to love any movie about a scrappy little working-class kid who just wants to dance. But as a socialist, I cringe a bit. While it’s true the film did not exactly vilify the miners’ strike or the larger political stakes behind it, the men themselves are portrayed as brutish, impulsive, wildly rageful, and (perhaps foolishly) committed to a doomed cause, when in fact, one of the most painful things about the strike is how close they came to winning. (The dancing is great, though.)

Of course, Billy Elliot is more about the grit and determination of a little boy who does ballet than about his family and community and the strike they’re living through. It can thus be somewhat forgiven for ending on a happy note, with the titular character playing the lead in Matthew Bourne’s modernized Swan Lake masterpiece while his hardened father watches with proud tears welling in his eyes.

Pride, meanwhile, is an at times tacky bit of historical embalming. The story itself is wonderful and heartwarming and (more or less) true; London gays and lesbians did start collecting funds on the street, outside of gay bookshops, and in gay bars for striking miners in Bumblefuck, Wales. There’s a bit of unforgivable feel-good liberal revisionism in the film, of course, which fails to mention that the queers in question were not merely spontaneously moved by the plight of the pits but were in fact very dedicated communists and socialists. Nonetheless, the solidarity and friendship between cosmopolitan London gays and a working-class Welsh mining community was real, and it did end with miners marching at the head of the 1985 London Gay Pride Parade (despite the entirely predictable insistence from liberals that the march be a “celebration,” rather than “political.”)

That scene in the movie is so soaring and life-affirming that the audience is liable to forget that the miners had just lost their battle with the Tories and that soon many of the people marching in that parade would be diagnosed with—and likely eventually die from—a deadly disease that was swept under the rug by those very same Tories.[11]

All three films are a bit depoliticized, and the second two gloss over a world historical tragedy and major defeat of the workers’ movement in favor of a simplistic final moment of triumph. But I still love them all because I’m a sucker for a bit of campy workerist romance. Throw in brass, ballet, and Bronski Beat,[12] and you’ve got yourself a party.

Socialists don’t want mercy; they want to be big and strong and powerful.

The real commonality among these films, though, is their affection for miners but not so much for workers. To put it another way, the films seem to like miners best when they’re playing a flugelhorn, marching in gay pride parades, or driving their creative children far away from the coalfields so they can dance ballet. Miners were always more than just miners, but it’s a lot harder to talk about the actual jobs they were fighting for. I don’t blame the filmmakers too much for falling short here; it’s hard to explain why preserving such difficult, dangerous, and unhealthy work was so politically strategic, but those jobs gave working-class Brits a hand on the lever of both the welfare state and the industrial policy of the United Kingdom. It’s not that there’s some overlooked romance in pickaxes and pit ponies; workers controlling mining meant that the workers who built the country might be able to run it too, and not in some symbolic, protesty, “whose streets? our streets!” kind of way. I mean really run the country. And they came so damn close.

My fixer says he worries that a recently invigorated love for the miners might have something to do with the fact that they’re no longer a threat to power, and I can’t say I don’t share his concerns. It’s true that there was plenty of vocal support for the miners during the strike, but the difference between mercy and solidarity has become ever-blurrier amid the disastrous global decline of the labor movement. Mercy is for Christians, and solidarity is for socialists. It’s not that the two categories are mutually exclusive (and a little mercy certainly makes the world more bearable), but one is hardly a substitute for the other. Mercy dictates support for the miners because they were wickedly and ruthlessly felled; solidarity dictates support for the miners because the union makes us strong.

Contemporary left politics would greatly benefit from heeding this critical distinction more closely. Contrast in this regard the proud collective power of the Miners’ Strike—a bloody, sometimes deadly fight for a muscular workers’ state led by one of the biggest and strongest unions—with the fetishes for marginality, narrative, suffering, and individualism, all of which are essential to liberal shibboleths like privilege theory, standpoint theory, and identity politics. Socialists don’t want mercy; they want to be big and strong and powerful, and they don’t apologize for that.

As the evening came to a close, I succumbed to jetlag and declined an invitation to drinks with trade unionists at the County Hotel. I would normally never miss an opportunity to revel in the British national pastime of binge-drinking, but I knew I had to be up at the crack of dawn to see all the brass bands, and I doubted my ability to wake fresh trying to keep up with the English.[13] Thus I retired early in temperance and chastity.

And thank God, because if hangovers were a sound, they would be the tens of tuning bagpipes that woke me up the next morning.

 


 

[1] According to the Ushaw Moor Historical Website, twenty “aged miners’ homes” were opened in the village in 1920. These were lovely little centrally located retirement homes for miners and their wives constructed under the Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association, which was funded by both the coal owners and contributions from the miners’ collective wages. The Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association, founded in 1898, still exists as an affordable housing charity for anyone over fifty. They oversee some 1,700 homes in the North of England, some over a hundred years old, and they continue to build.

The Ushaw Moor Historical Website also maintains a list of regional dialect and miners’ slang words; my favorites being “sugar bullets,” for candy, and “grund closet,” for toilet.

[2] This was the Wearmouth Colliery, which then employed about 3,700 men. From, Local records; or, Historical register of remarkable events, which have occurred in Northumberland & Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-tweed, 1832-1857, a continuation of the work by [J.] Sykes:

1833, Jul 12 – Great rejoicings took place at Monkwearmouth, in consequence of a seam of coal, 2 feet 10 inches thick, and of excellent quality, having been won at the new colliery at that place. The shaft of the pit was 180 fathoms deep, and had been seven years in sinking, at an immense cost to the proprietors, Messrs. Pemberton and Thompson. The Bensham seam, five feet eight inches thick, was come to, Feb 15th, 1834, at a depth of 267 fathoms ; and on April 4th, 1846, the Hutton seam, four feet eight inches thick was won, at a total depth from the surface of 287 fathoms, or 1,720 feet! This is the deepest mine in the world.

[3] Scargill’s open communism and support for the Soviet Union was not merely a footnote of his record but a major feature of his political career. His ardent capital-c Communist sympathies were a major Tory talking point during and after the Miners’ Strike, but they surface most amusingly in a piece of what appears to be freelance nutjob propaganda titled Scargill the Stalinist?: The Communist Role in the 1984 Miners Strike. The curiosity was penned by a fabulous nutjob named Nicholas Hagger, and due to its timeliness, was reviewed positively in major right-wing publications for merely flipping through old interviews and printing allegedly damning Scargill quotations with no commentary like a book of aphorisms. A sample:

“We could take over all the means of production, distribution and exchange more or less immediately.”

“I want to take into common ownership everything in Britain.”

“What we must create is a new socialist society.”

And my personal favorite: “If you’re out on strike you can have the moon.”

All of these quotations come from an interview with Scargill in the July/August 1975 issue of New Left Review.

[4] A few months later, Trump renegotiated NAFTA in a way that Dan DiMaggio of Labor Notes acknowledged was “unlikely to bring many jobs back,” but “might slow the flight of auto production for the North American market to Mexico and to other continents.” As of this writing, it’s unclear if the Democrats are working on a better offer than that, but I doubt the “left wing of capitalism” will even try.

[5] That evening I would hear some domestic racism from a butch northern bartender, who described the Miner’s Gala as “JOOST A LOAD OF GYPSIES GETTIN DROONK. DISGRESSFUL!” Anti-Traveler sentiment is fascinating to Americans, since around twenty million of us live in trailers already, and the lifestyle of these “small business owners” is essentially romanticized as the American ideal of untethered frontiersmanship.

[6] The thing about Billy Bragg is that most of his fans discover him when they’re quite young and open-hearted—they have not yet developed the contempt for sentimentality that we later decide is the marker of a very serious person. When you get older, you begin to feel shame for such earnest boosterism, and so it’s more often than not the punk rockers wishing to disguise their bright-eyed past who roll their eyes at Billy, hoping to find any excuse to talk about Crass. But Crass mostly sucks, and “Milkman of Human Kindness” is a bop. Also by all accounts, Billy Bragg is a sweet and committed man, and since he dedicated the verse of “Solidarity Forever”—the one that he remembered—to me and to Democratic Socialists of America, and since we have already established that I am very easily flattered under the right circumstances, Billy is good and haters can all suck my dick.

[7] The Grimethorpe Colliery Band survived the pit closure, though former Band Manager Nigel Dixon says the band has put a muzzle on its former militancy: “We remember the strikes but these anniversaries, they don’t mean anything. We can’t go political. What we should be doing is focusing on the survival of band, because don’t forget every player in the band was employed in the pit. If they wanted a certain player then they were offered a job with a pit house. Then the pit went, so the funding went, but the name has survived.”

[8] An obvious stand-in for Grimethorpe, which became the poorest village in England two years after the closure of the Grimethorpe colliery. During its rapid decline, crime went from thirty percent below the national average to twenty percent above the national average. Regeneration efforts have made some changes and employment is up, but gone is the local welfare apparatus of the miners.

Danny Gillespie, formerly a miner of thirty-six years, told the BBC in 2013: “Mining didn’t just provide jobs. It provided housing, it provided shops, it provided sports facilities, it provided social care in some cases. It seeped through every bit of our bodies, every bit of our veins, every bit of our culture. And when it went it took all of that with it, a whole way of life disappeared at the same time.”

[9] Conversely, the New York Times review of the movie by Stephen Holden, rather heartlessly titled “Sentimental Coal Dust with a Brass Band,” felt the protagonist/antagonist division to be far too explicit, calling the film “shamelessly manipulative and sentimental.” Holden opens,

You won’t have any trouble separating the heroes from the villains in Mark Herman’s film “Brassed Off,” a politically charged British comedy whose working-class characters smile bravely through their coal-dusted tears. The good guys are the working-class families of Grimley, a tightly knit Yorkshire coal-mining village whose brass band is the pride of the community. The bad guys are the duplicitous Tory Government officials who have instituted a pit-closing program that is throwing thousands of miners across Britain out of work.

Yes Stephen, those are the bad guys. There are a few moments in history where the villains and the heroes are obvious, at least to everyone who doesn’t write for The New York Times.

[10] Arthur Scargill’s then-wife Anne Scargill was a leading figure of Women Against Pit Closures, alongside NUM General Secretary Peter Heathfield’s wife Betty Heathfield. The group was essential to the strike’s strength and coordination. They were and are considered very serious and formidable activists of the militant trade union movement.

[11] There is no doubt that the Thatcher government’s aversion to addressing HIV and AIDS is responsible for many preventable deaths. Not only did they delay action on a public health crisis, Thatcher very famously censored and bowdlerized life-saving public health warnings as the epidemic ramped up, going so far as to say to say, in a memo, “It would be better in my mind to follow the VD [venereal disease] precedent of putting notices in doctors’ surgeries, public lavatories etc. But to place advertisements in newspapers, which every young person could read and learn of practices they never knew about, will do harm.” The first actual AIDS campaign didn’t launch until late 1986, well past the point of mass infection. A civil servant working with the government at the time remembers one minister who was “unable to pronounce ‘vagina’,” and another responding to the topic of oral sex with incredulity, saying ‘Do we know how many people do this sort of thing?’”

[12] Bronski Beat very famously played the “Pits and Perverts” miners benefit show put on by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The openly leftist, openly gay synth-pop trio titled their first album Age of Consent, a reference to the age of consent for homosexual sex in Britain (twenty-one), compared to the age of consent for heterosexual acts (sixteen). Their most famous song is “Smalltown Boy,” but my favorite is “Why,” which is also an absolute bop.

[13] I have never found any truth in the common knowledge that hangovers get worse with age; mine have always been terrible, owing perhaps to the fact that I never vomit while drunk, conserving the poison until the next morning—or afternoon—which will inevitably be spent with my head hanging over the toilet. This does not stop me. Once when wasted off Old Crow, a “bourbon” that should be outlawed, I took a man back to the apartment of a friend that I had agreed to housesit. Unable to find the lights, we nonetheless managed to find the twin bed. In the light of day, it became apparent that my friend had left out a large bowl of oranges for weeks which had rotted and gestated an entire South American country’s worth of fruit flies. An extremely vocal vomiter, I of course took to the loo to retch violently. Awakened by the sounds of my distress, the gentleman, fetched me a Coca-Cola spiked with a bit of the hair of the dog. We were married for four years.

Amber A'Lee Frost is a writer and musician in Brooklyn. She is a contributor to Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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