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The Church of Labor

Contemplating the past and future of coal at the Durham Miners' Gala

Part two of a two-part dispatch from the North of England. Read part one here.

They Being Dead Yet Speaketh
–The Miners Hymns

I had seen the gala before I ever came to Durham.

The Miners’ Hymns (2010) is fifty-two minutes of silent documentary, comprised almost entirely of black-and-white archival footage played at a lowered speed. It was directed by American Bill Morrison and scored by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who blended a sixteen-piece brass ensemble with dramatic percussion, electronic instruments, and church organ to create an atmospheric, ambient soundtrack.[1] It is best watched on a large screen, in total darkness, in an otherwise silent room. It is quite possibly the most captivating film I have ever seen.

In The Miners’ Hymns, you will see coal miners mining coal, of course. They leave for work when it is still dark, walking through the narrow streets flanked by matching homes and gaslit street lamps. They are lowered into the bowels of the earth. They pack into small underground trolleys that take them to the coal face. They hack at the walls with pick-axes, manipulate strangely crude-looking machinery, push carts full of precious anthracite that are so heavy you can see the articulations of every muscle in their naked backs. But the film tells the story of the miners rhizomatically and achronologically. More recent helicopter footage of Durham’s former coal fields features a series of bleak post-industrial landscapes, big box stores, and parking lots. Flash back to the past again, and you see sea-coalers[2] scooping up loose chunks on the beach, loading them into into horse-pulled wagons to sell later. Mechanization and heavy machinery change the work over the years; you can’t see the men inside the bulldozers, but you know they’re there, piling the coal into enormous mounds—a perfect filthy playscape for some little boys and their dog, who slide down the hill in a cloud of coal dust and run straight to the sea.

You see their faces, a different one every time, and many of them look right at you.

You see moments from the strike, too. A huge militarized police force was deployed in many towns: capital’s own thugs occupying the communities of the working class. You watch a cavalcade of police walk through gauntlets of strikers and activists. The cops then line up to guard the street while armored buses filled with scabs roll through. The resulting confrontation is nothing short of war—the police on horseback charging the men, bludgeoning them with riot gear from atop terrified and stumbling horses. It is shockingly violent.[3]

But you also see the Durham Miners’ Gala, or “The Big Meeting.” These scenes are from a very long time ago (the date is not given in the film). The streets are packed with marras.[4] Beautiful, regal silk labor banners, one after the other, wave proudly, ten and twenty feet above the crowd. Brass band after brass band marches alongside them. Children skip through the streets, holding each other and laughing. Families watch from the sidelines; women wave white handkerchiefs out second story windows. Some of the best scenes of the gala aren’t even from the parade, but the crowds on the green where the speeches are delivered. Strangely, many in the audience are aware of the camera. You see their faces, a different one every time, and many of them look right at you. It’s a sea of people, all scrubbed and polished in their Sunday best. Suits and dresses, men in bowlers and flat caps, women in cloches and corsages. Children hold balloons or lean into their parents’ arms. You remember these faces during the final scene of the film, when a procession of the parade marches right into the Durham Cathedral, where the minister would give a service for the miners and bless the banners they brought with them.

Walking around Durham the day before the gala, it was difficult to imagine the crowds. The geology of the city resembles something like Pittsburgh, in that it’s lovely and green, with a river that cuts through the tree-covered hills. Walk into town however, and it’s the Disneyfied version of British culture: all pretty little shops, restaurants and boutiques, Norman architecture—notably Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle—and little winding brick roads that curl and twist and rise and fall. And it’s a college town[5] really, cultured and tidy, with good shopping and fine dining. There is a Tesco, Top Shop, and tapas eateries. There is an impressive Oriental Museum.[6]

The day of the gala, though, the streets teemed with people, and the silk banners representing collieries that had long since closed towered over you wherever you went. One lodge might have a banner with Lenin on it, the next might invoke biblical imagery. Still others bore the faces of Labour Party politicians like Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, the Welsh son of a Coal Miner who founded the British National Health Service. Equally idiosyncratic were brass colliery bands that followed each banner; passersby might find themselves in the midst of rousing repertoires of hymns, marches, or pop music.[7] The endless crowd was glowing with benevolent (and ever-so-slightly drunken) cheer. Just when you felt things were getting a little too casual, a band of bagpipes and snare drums would come by and everyone would straighten up and remember that we were supposed to be doing something at least slightly reverent.

For Americans, the Great Highland Bagpipes are more icon than instrument. If you are middle class, they are generally a sigil of Scottish heritage and WASPy Presbyterian stock. If you are working class, they’re a staple of any Labor Day parade worth its scratch, and in this context, they’re far more associated with the Irish for some reason. In New York City, for example, you tend to see pipes represented by so-called Emerald Societies. These bands are essentially ethnic affinity groups of Americans of Irish extraction, generally associated with the unionized work forces of firemen, sanitation workers, or (most infamously) the police. All the aforementioned unions have long-standing (though often underserved) reputations as right-wing. As a result, the bagpipe in America often carries the connotations of reactionary social politics, labor gone astray, and large Irish-American men in skirts who will beat the shit out of you. Obviously this impression doesn’t represent a fair judgement of the unions, their members, or the music, but I’ll admit it does somewhat color my initial reaction to this bellowing scrotum of a musical instrument. Nonetheless, the bagpipe blasts do rattle the bones in a not altogether unpleasant way.

To actually hear a full marching band of pipes right up close is a strangely physical experience. The drone of them somehow gets in your ears, then swims deep into your whole head, then down into your chest, until your whole body is buzzing. It is the swelling hum of a migraine but without any actual pain; a bit like getting your teeth drilled. If I had been hungover, this experience would have been akin to an enhanced interrogation technique. It’s not just that they’re loud—although they are very loud—it’s that they appear to operate on some cosmic auditory frequency that vibrates your innards into jelly. They are not exactly pretty, but they are imposing.[8]

The streets teemed with people, and the silk banners representing collieries that had long since closed towered over you wherever you went.

I made my way down to the racecourse—the vast green field where the banners and bands would eventually line up, and the crowds would gather to watch the official Gala speeches. A “fun fair” (carnival) was set up for the children. There were booths promoting various causes and trade unions; Unite, the union that had put on the anti-Trump rally the day before, had a display for its “Period Dignity” campaign, which demands the removal of the European Union’s Value Added Tax on sanitary products, as well as the distribution of menstrual products in all schools and workplaces, without any cost for the poor. “Show Racism the Red Card,” a sports-centered anti-racist education group, had a “footballer” signing autographs. Irish Travelers sold knickknacks from stalls next to anti-fox hunt activists. Shirtless pink Englishmen milled around in the hot sun, and you could see their sunburn develop before your very eyes.

I stopped at a booth for a left-wing bookshop that also sold shirts with “I STILL HATE THATCHER” across the chest in massive letters. All the most germane texts were there: Alex Nunns’s The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power; Seumas Milne’s The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners—a killer book that tracks the attacks on the NUM and Arthur Scargill past the strike and well into an elaborate state-orchestrated media smear campaign. Noticing my press pass, a student volunteer with a sweetly prim accent started up a conversation, which ended rather abruptly when she asked, “What do you think the biggest difference is between the U.S. Bernie stuff and Corbyn here?”

“Well . . . probably that you have a Labour Party.”

She looked uncomfortable briefly, then smiled at me piteously. “Ah, yeah,” she said, sounding somewhat embarrassed. I realized I had committed what amounts to an egregious faux-pas among the English with that sort of accent; I was complaining to a stranger, and what’s worse, I was complimenting her good fortune in the process.

I felt as if I had used the wrong fork.

When studying labor history across multiple countries with any thoroughness whatsoever, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that a unionized, nationalized (and therefore largely domestic) energy sector is one of the essential bulwarks of labor’s strength; it grants unequalled prominence to worker power, labor party politics, and industrial policy. That said, coal is goddamn filthy, and climate change kills. So how to square the circle?

When researching the finer points of the dialectics of socialism and environmentalism, I turned to science writer Leigh Phillips, whose book Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry, And Stuff, I found very formative in my sense of ambitious state planning. We did not get off to an encouraging start. (Interview edited and condensed.)

Amber Frost: Leigh, why can’t we mine coal anymore?

Leigh Phillips: Oooh, where to start? Coal mining and combustion is probably the most environmentally destructive activity humanity has ever engaged in. There are so many bad aspects to it—climate change, air pollution, radiation, river and aquifer contamination, health impacts on miners (black lung)—and so thousands of studies. (Although, interestingly, it probably saved Europe’s forests, as wood was rapidly abandoned as a fuel source with the rise of coal.)

AF: Shit. Okay, but what about carbon capture?

LP: For that, look into Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan. It’s the only large commercial-scale CCS operation in the world right now and can’t make it profitable. That said, CCS attached to coal plants is probably a nonstarter, as the sheer volume of CO2 we would have to sequester is likely infeasible. But there are a number of sectors that are really difficult to decarbonize via clean electrification such as steel, cement, potash, and aluminum production. For these sectors, CCS will probably be necessary. We also need to go carbon-negative for a while at some point later this century, meaning actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it somehow. CCS may play some role in that (direct air capture plus CCS, I reckon). This means that while CCS for “clean coal” is almost certainly not the answer (it would only target the atmospheric carbon pollution of coal, and do nothing about the other environmental impacts), development of CCS technology itself is vital.

AF: Shit. Okay, so what could we do instead?

LP: France built out its nuclear fleet in ten years. But here’s the thing: they did that in the 1970s/early ‘80s, before European deregulation and liberalization took hold. It was a grand projet d’état, mounted by a confidently interventionist state. I don’t see any radical decarbonization happening outside of a combative left-social democratic government 100 percent committed to nuclear and a very interventionist industrial strategy. It’s why winning over the left to nuclear is so important, in my view. Variables will never cut the mustard because of their intermittency. Even wind, which is less intermittent, is still intermittent. And nobody want their granny at the hospital on an intermittent dialysis machine.

If the UK had a government sufficiently interventionist to revive the British coal mining industry, that same government could be just as interventionist and build out a fleet of nuclear plants instead.

That said, I certainly don’t want to demonize coal. While the myriad environmental impacts are real, it was overall a fantastic boon for society (and still is in the developing world, as it is reliable and much cheaper than variable renewables). The bounty of cheap, reliable energy was a marvel that powered the construction of the modern world. And the workers in the industry knew it and were deeply proud of it.

Phillips mentioned a 1980 interview Dick Cavett did with Welsh actor Richard Burton; it’s worth actually listening to in addition to reading, if only for that sonorous Richard Burton voice that tends to make a woman’s toes curl involuntarily. Burton nearly became a miner like his father and brothers, and was taken aback when Cavett asked him if he had dreaded such a future as a boy.

No, not at all. No. The opposite, as a matter of fact. Everybody’s ambition, every little boy’s ambition in my valley was to become a miner, because there was the arrogant strut of the Lords of the Coalface. They had these muscular buttocks, and bow-legs, and they walked with a kind of arrogance. Everybody wanted to be like a miner, wanted to to stand on street corners and look at the posh people pass with hostile eyes, and insult . . . the doctor’s daughter, the lawyer’s daughter, the preacher’s daughter as they passed, insult them with these cold looks, because they were the kings of the underworld.

By the time the speakers lined up onstage to deliver their official addresses at the Gala, the weather had become irritatingly un-English. Everyone on the racecourse appeared delighted by the heat and the sun, but I didn’t come to Durham to get a tan. Weaving my way through the increasingly shirtless and pinkening Brits, I was shuffled into the press pit in eager anticipation of the Absolute Boy, but first we had to hear everyone else.

There was General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress Frances O’Grady,[9] whose speech was silently protested by members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers.[10] O’Grady had recently cut a deal with Southern Rail on behalf of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen without consulting the RMT; the agreement undercut the RMT’s own campaign to keep a second, safety-trained staff member on all trains for the sake of both passengers and job retention. The workers did not make a sound; they merely raised a large banner proclaiming her betrayal. She had to have seen it, or at least known it was there, but she appeared unfazed. The audience applause at her conclusion seemed slightly dampened, but perhaps it was just my imagination.

Howard Beckett of Unite the Union blew the crowd away. An unimposing man with a friendly face, he immediately and unexpectedly burst into fiery oration. To be perfectly honest, he probably could have gotten away with phoning it in—he says “comrade” a lot, has a fantastic voice with a musical bellow, and he possesses one of those very cinematic Northern Irish accents where the word “now” has about seven vowels and thirty syllables. Beckett went headfirst into a passionate tirade against Tories and big business, and issued a righteous call to “rage” against exploitation.[11]

Bernie Sanders even made an appearance in the form of a prerecorded video address, and I must say, he made an excellent showing. It was a classic Bernie speech; lots of talk of inequality and fairness, a few highly specific social democratic demands, and denunciations of “mill-yun-ehs and bill-yun-ehs” all punctuated by enthusiastic cheers. I swear he’s so good with a crowd that he knew how long they would be clapping when he recorded it and timed it perfectly, as if the cheering audience were in the room with him. He only really beefed it once, when he decided to lean a little too hard into the environmentalist end of things and disparaged coal. Here the crowd fell into a somewhat awkward silence (Read the fuckin’ room, Bernie).

Dennis Skinner was undoubtedly the star of the day though. At eighty-six years old, the coal miner of twenty-two-years-turned-MP has been a firebrand his entire career, famous for his gleeful and open hostility toward the Tories. In one of his most famous attacks, Skinner referred to then-Prime Minister David Cameron as “Dodgy Dave” after the Panama Papers had revealed profits from an offshore trust belonging to his father. Not only was the insult itself “unparliamentary” (you’re not allowed to call someone a liar), it is actually against Parliamentary Rules to say anyone’s name, which is why you hear nothing but phrases like “the honorable gentleman/lady” and “my honorable friend.” He was asked twice to withdraw the remark and thrown out after the second refusal.[12]

Corbyn is an extremely unlikely hero for Labour, and he knows it.

Skinner has refused to go gently into the role of reserved elder statesman. Likely aware of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s tendency to quote from poems in his speeches, he went for a seemingly improvised call to arms peppered with trademark joie de vivre and comic relief. Unlike his heavily rehearsed colleagues, Skinner appears to just pull solid-gold bon mots out of his coal-dusted old ass, and everyone rightfully adores him for it. He’s that deadly combination of vigilant and charming—someone who’s immediately liked by anyone with a healthy sense of humor and a “slobs versus snobs” sensibility. He enjoys his authority as well and bemoaned all the young people who asked to take selfies with him on the way to the stage, all the while grinning for each shot with obvious relish. Months later, I would see him speak again at the Labour Party Conference, where he would call for the election of Corbyn as Prime Minister in memory of the creation of the National Health Service, shouting “I hope that I am still in Parliament, ‘cause I want to nationalize something every week!”

When Corbyn finally took the stand, the crowd went wild. But if I’m being perfectly honest . . . I don’t really remember what he said.

The best kind of Jeremy Corbyn speech is the kind where you forget that he’s a vegetarian. Unlike our own dogmatically single-minded Bernie, Jez is man of preternaturally gentle temperament, with a tendency to meander into a kind of warm bath of hippie platitudes. Quoth the puttering community gardener during his 2017 speech at the Glastonbury music festival:[13]

In every child there is a poem, in every child there is a painting, in every child there is music. But as people get a bit older they get embarrassed about it, “Ooh, can’t be thinking that sort of thing, can’t be writing poetry.” No! I want all of our children to be inspired, all of our children to have the right to learn music, write poetry and to paint in the way that they want.

I had heard a version of this speech before, at an event following the the 2017 Labour Party Conference. My friends and I had cringed and immediately agreed that in fact a reverse policy would be necessary, say perhaps forcing every art school student to also learn a practical skill, like elder care, or pipe fitting. These speeches get reworked a lot, and they start to run together. Even Corbyn’s wife, who had been seated next to him onstage, was languidly texting throughout every speech and didn’t stop to look up as her husband took to the podium.

In many ways, Corbyn is an extremely unlikely hero for Labour, and he knows it, once even saying, “People say I should be tougher, but it’s not my style.” Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell, widely considered to be Corbyn’s closest confidant, seems the more obvious choice. He’s certainly a more focused and assertive politician—more of a Bernie, if you will—but he also has a bit of a temper, and once during a parliamentary hearing got so mad about airport construction that he grabbed the ceremonial mace (a big dumb English sceptre thingy that only the Speaker of the House of Commons is allowed to use). After that display, he was suspended from the House of Commons for five whole days. He also refused to apologize for the ordeal, and evidently not everyone finds this as charming as I do. (After all, who among us isn’t moved to near-violent passion by airport construction?) McDonnell isn’t quite Skinner,[14] but he’s a rougher presence. Corbyn isn’t exactly all sweetness and light, but he’s definitely the Good Cop. Most important, he knows when to let other people shine, and he understood better than any other politician on hand that this event was about the sea of people on the racecourse and the trade unions that built their movement. It was strange to be a part of a political event in which a single political figure was not the focus, but then again, they have a labor party. We just have politicians.

The seemingly inescapable Billy Bragg was up next, but I had to run out of the press pit if I was going to watch the blessing of the banners. As soon as I made it to the street, I caught an elbow to the tit from a drunken reveler, who slurred a sincere apology, but I had no time to respond in the customary English tradition of gracious forgiveness in an equally apologetic tone. I had to get to church.


[1] As with so many spiritual compositions, The Miners’ Hymns score was recorded in a church—Durham Cathedral, naturally. A socialist himself, the industry-minded Jóhannsson also composed theme albums devoted to the IBM 1401 computer, and Fordlândia, Henry Ford’s ill-fated attempt at creating company town for the Brazil’s new rubber industry.

[2] At least nineteen sea-coalers were still raking the beaches of Hartlepool, County Durham, in 2013 (with Land Rovers replacing the ponies), when Hartlepool Borough Council banned the practice, citing safety concerns. Tony Reed, who had been a sea-coaler for thirty years, objected: “It’s all well and good for them, but I’m fifty-one years old, have three children and I’m self-employed so all my living has gone and I’m stuck—they have dumped it straight on me.” The ban was reversed in 2015.

[3] I have shown this film to multiple friends, including at least one combat veteran, and this is the moment where I turn to watch their faces in the dark for an inevitable physical response to the brutality. Everyone flinches.

[4] From Friends of Durham Miners’ Gala, the nonprofit funding source of the Gala: “‘Marra’ is a miners’ term of affection for a trusted friend. Marras were generally workmates to whom, quite often, you entrusted your life. Marras are comrades who stick together.”

[5] So-called town-gown relations of Durham are predictably strained at times. Last year, a Durham University rugby team organized a Miners’ Strike theme party, and guests were instructed to dress as miners (“flat caps, filth and a general disregard for personal safety” and “think pickaxes, think headlamps, think 12 percent unemployment in 1984”), police (“working-class-beating-bobbies”), Falkland War “heros,” or members of the Thatcher administration. The university intervened and cancelled the event after complaints from the Durham Miners’ Association.

[6] The Oriental Museum was the target of two art heists in 2012, including one in which a giant hole was smashed into the side of the building to gain entry. Among the items lifted were a jade bowl from the Ming Dynasty, estimated to be worth between two and sixteen million pounds. It was one in a string of bungled burglaries coordinated by a gang dubbed the “Rathekeale Rovers,” the fourteen members of which were eventually apprehended, all but two from the Irish Traveller community. Among those arrested was a reported Chinese-British national named Donald Chi Chong Wong. The haul from Durham, combined with a robbery of eighteen jade objects at the Fitzwilliam Museum (from which none of the artifacts have been recovered), could have netted the gang something between eighteen and fifty-seven million pounds on the market. Prior to its forays into the museum scene, the Rathkeale Rovers had engaged primarily in more traditional crimes—drug trafficking, money laundering, fraud, etc., but the overall frequency of Chinese art theft has spiked immensely in the past few years, leading many to suspect that high-profile Chinese billionaires have launched a crime campaign to bring ancient Chinese artifacts—most of which were pillaged during European imperial campaigns—“back home.” When a Pekingese—the traditional dog of Chinese Emperors—was “obtained” for Queen Victoria during the Second Opium War, she had the brass balls to name it “Looty.” I don’t have many hot takes on art theft, except to say that it is difficult to steal what was already stolen, so: free the Rathkeale Rovers!

[7] It’s possible I heard “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis five different times, and every one inspired an eruption of joyful singing. It should have been annoying but it wasn’t.

[8] It may also be noted that the Scots chose the thistle as their national flower. I don’t even know that I would consider thistles flowers at all, so much as crude vegetal weapons working in a floral idiom. The apocryphal origin story of the Scottish thistle concerns some Viking giving away the location of his invading army by screaming after he stepped on one. If thistles are flowers, then so are sea urchins and porcupines. This is not to disparage bagpipes, thistles, or Scots, I’m just saying it’s not entirely clear that traditional Scottish culture is predicated on the enjoyment of pleasant and/or pretty things, and that this may relate to their choice of shrieking hell-bladder as national instrument.

[9] O’Grady is the first woman secretary of the TUC.

[10] The British Labour Party differs from American-style political parties in many ways. Perhaps most notably, as an actual party of labor, member trade unions have institutional power codified in the party’s operations. In 2004, the RMT were the very first trade union to ever be expelled from the Labour Party, after they voted to allow branches to endorse non-Labour Party candidates and some Scottish branches affiliated with parties to the left of Tony Blair’s neoliberal “New Labour.” Despite their expulsion, the RMT carried a lot of water for Corbyn, and they remain one of the most powerful and militant unions in the United Kingdom.

[11] One of the things Beckett demanded his listeners “rage” against was “zero-hours contracts,” meaning employment without guaranteed hours. ZHC are so normal in the US, we don’t really have a name for them, but they’re considered a disgrace by most in the United Kingdom. Ian Hodson, National President of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union told me it was McDonald’s that introduced ZHCs to the UK.

[12] He also once called another MP a “pompous sod.” When the speaker urged him to withdraw the remark, Skinner would only withdraw the word “pompous.” He was thrown out.

[13] Corbyn then introduced Run the Jewels, a collaboration between rappers El-P and Killer Mike, the latter of whom  was a vocal Sanders supporter and Corbyn fan. The pair dedicated their set to the victims of the Grenfell fire, with Killer Mike saying “We love you, we love you, we love you.” During the primaries, he actually met with Bernie and posed for a photo-op for his endorsement where the two mimicked the hand gestures on the cover of the debut album. An overzealous anarchist writer rushed to Twitter to denounce Bernie for the apparent racist gesture, saying “Bernie is making a finger-gun there is no other way to interpret this photograph.” He was later corrected, but had unwittingly revealed himself as the whitest man in Brooklyn, and perhaps the only one who hadn’t bumped the album for a solid three months after it came out. He’s currently promoting a book about youth politics.

[14] Just for the record, Dennis Skinner has been kicked out of Parliament over ten times.