Friday, 24 January 2014

Dark Days

‘The Stars Look Down’ (1940) stars Michael Redgrave and is set in a North Eastern mining town in the 1930s.  Above all else, it demonstrated to me the unremitting misery of the 19th and 20th Century coal community.  This is of particular personal interest to me.  Although I grew up in Sheffield, with steel workers as my immediate antecedents, in 1999 I moved to a traditional coal mining town.  My work put me in touch with many old miners and I found myself working in communities where mining was gone but by no means forgotten.  I have seen how the memory of dark times has been passed on down the generations, so that even decades old grievances can be brought into play without either side thinking it strange.  This is history that remains difficult to shake off.  I found it bemusing at first.

‘The Stars Look Down’ portrays a community that is downtrodden by its livelihood.  When the workers try and make a stand against the greed of the pit owners, the mine closes and they are left with nothing.  There is no alternative work.  The whole town is dragged down as people can’t afford to buy from the shopkeepers and small tradesmen.  With nothing else to kick against, they turn in on themselves.  Those who do try and find a way out – such as Redgrave’s character (Davey Fenwick) are viewed with amusement or disdain.  The will to break free has been forced out of most, they continue along a single track like a blinkered pit pony.
Redgrave by @aitchteee

 When the pit is open and working, danger is a constant presence.  The film makes it clear that many were of the opinion that mine owners put profit before lives.  It puts across a firm opinion that only public ownership will make this a safer working environment.  Daily threat of death is accepted as a hazard of earning enough to stay alive – a paradox unacceptable in the modern world. The storyline ends tragically.  True to life for so many families.  Also true to life perhaps is Davey Fenwick’s eventual return to his home village.  Even those that escaped found the world outside just too different to cope with – such was the unique character of a pit village. 

Nationalisation was achieved but it didn’t stop the accidents or the strikes.  What really changed things was the welfare state, which meant that loss of work didn’t lead to cruelly means- tested grinding poverty.  Although the towns and villages where I live and work are still struggling through the closures of two decades ago with some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. This film helped me to see why I shouldn’t have been so bemused when I moved here. Perhaps if I had seen this first I would have been more prepared. 

Since moving here, I have traced my family tree and found that I have some north eastern mining blood. Cornforth and Ferryhill are my ancestral homes, and were probably not that different to the village portrayed in the film, even back in the 19th century.  I am proud to have this blood – but glad that Great Grandma decided to seek her fortune in the big city and took her hook to Sheffield.  And now I realise just how much I should admire her for breaking free from that setting.  Strange to imagine that I did actually meet her, that this history was just in my grasp as our lives briefly overlapped. Unfortunately, she was so old that she scared me! But it just shows that these terrible lives were not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, which should be much to our shame.

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