There are no deep coal mines in the UK. There are no coal miners. There are no brass bands attached to a living colliery and there no new union banners for new pits. And soon, under new environmental rules, the sale of domestic coal, except for smokeless fuel, may be banned.
So one would think that an event called the Durham Miners Gala would be consigned to our nostalgic past with a few old men having a pint down the local working men’s club.
But the facts contradict this. A new film released on Friday The Big Meeting by director and producer Daniel Draper two years after the last pit closed in the UK in 2016, shows the very opposite with a thriving modern festival in the City of Durham attracting over 200,000 people. It is a tribute to the almost eternal traditions of community, solidarity and fraternity that lives on long after the last mine closed.
It is warm almost affectionate appreciation of one of Labour’s major festivals seen partly through the eyes of a diverse group of individual participants, including a 19 year old Oxford undergraduate who runs a local left wing bookshop in her vacations; a Waspi group of middle aged women campaigning for their pensions and a woman who plays in a brass band.
The film itself interweaves the past and present with split screen and colour and black and white clips contrasts the old celebrations with the new. It has clips of Prime Ministers like Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson addressing the meeting from the balcony of the Durham County Hotel when the National Union of Mineworkers was a major force in the land to today’s political participants including a video from presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in the States to Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader.
It shows how the country has changed. One black and white sequence shows young lads and lassies (well before the contraceptive pill) cavorting in the fields and woods round Durham – as the festival was the place where young miners could meet people of the opposite sex. This is contrasted with today’s festival highlighting gay rights.
There is very raw emotional coverage of the music of brass bands – which, if anything, have expanded – with bands from places like Bristol which never had a pit to the US band players– participating with bands that have survived their pit closures. And there is in an interview with a woman who still makes these huge union colliery banners and is both reviving old lost ones and making new ones.
There is also clips of current pop artists who attend the event including Billy Bragg.
The climax of the festival is a service inside Durham Cathedral with the brass bands that have marched through the streets converging on the city’s huge place of worship.
This is the film that both tells the history of a 135 year old event and captures the spirit of it today.
As the director said: “I don’t think words can do justice to such an occasion – I feel like the Gala is a living and breathing organism, something not static, but immovable – a celebration of working-class life, not just today, but almost as if it takes place in the past and future simultaneously. I suppose this film is an elaborate explanation of something wonderful and beyond words.”
The BIG MEETING. On release from September 6 and shown first in South Shields, Newcastle, Glasgow, Durham and Halifax. It is produced by the independent Shut Out The Light company
Contributers: Jeremy Corbyn, Dennis Skinner, Ian Lavery, Richard Burgon, Angela Rayner, DBC Pierre, John Irvin, Paul Mason, Margaret Aspinall, Selina Todd, Robert Colls, Ross Forbes, George Robson, Heather Wood, Heather Ward, Stephen Guy, Charlotte Austin, Laura Daly, Lynn Gibson, Mike Jackson & Brett Haran (LGSM), Ben Sellers, Liam Young, Emma Shankland, Robert McManners, Jake Campbell-Morris.
I was listening to the news today , and someone described the North East as the Coal Belt! I get concerned those living in London know about their country! I must admit I certainly thought the Miners Gala would be in the Dustbin of History by now. I think, its survival may have been due to the fact that it was a social occasion for many people. It also is part of the culture heritage of County Durham. As society changes and fewer and fewer of us remember what a lump of coal looks like, and the Mining Villages either become commuter Belt villages or disappear under urban sprawl of Sunderland, Durham City, Gateshead etc, then I suspect the Miners Gala may have a cloud hanging over it. Fortunately events like these that survive their original purpose do tend to adapt and change to reflect the present as well as the past. Watching the banners go by, and to hear Tony Benn speak at the Gala on a Summers day is one of those lasting memories.
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